I typed half of this review with a Pringles tube stuck on the end of my arm. Yes, I’m that guy.
Damn, these kids can act.
Lillian, Ohio. 1979. A group of boys from the local middle school are making a super 8 zombie movie for a local film festival. While they are shooting in the middle of the night at a local railway depot, an Air Force train is deliberately derailed by the boys’ science teacher. In the resulting crash, something escapes. Something big.
In lesser hands, Super 8 would be little more than a cheap cash-in posing as a semi-autobiographical homage to the early movies of Steven Spielberg (aliens, broken families, small towns) but in JJ Abrams’ hands, it takes those elements and becomes something arguably more than the sum of its parts. Back in the late 70’s/early 80’s JJ, producer Bryan Burk and cinematographer Larry Fong were these kids. Running around with Dad’s camera, shooting all sorts of crazy science fiction and monster movies just like their hero Spielberg had done before them. I don’t think they ever really got involved with a captured creature from another world, although it would explain a lot…
A movie like this, told entirely from the perspective of a bunch of pre-teens, lives or dies on the quality of the performances. Let me tell you, there is some alchemy on the screen in Super 8. The two leads, Elle Fanning and Joel Courtney, are preternaturally good as young Alice and Joe. There was obviously something in the water back at the Fanning house when Elle and her big sis Dakota were growing up. The scene where Alice explains to Joe about her father’s guilt around the death of his mother had me on the verge of tears. The rest of the kids might not get as much chance to shine but they are no less impressive, particularly Riley Griffiths as Joe’s director and best friend Charles, and Ryan Lee as the miniature pyromaniac Cary. Joe and Alice’s fathers are both fairly stock characters, but they are invested with some real human moments thanks to Kyle Chandler and Ron Eldard.
Abrams and Fong have crafted a look for Super 8 that really evokes the era, or more accurately the movies from that era. If you are the type of person with an irrational hatred of lens flare then this flick might just send you over the edge. The film has a wonderful glossiness to it; everything looks so rich and clean. Even after the kids’ world starts blowing up, it never loses that feeling of childhood innocence and fun that seems to permeate every frame.
I really like Neville Page’s creature in this movie. It does have a more-than passing resemblance to Clover in its basic shape and movements, but the fact that is so much closer the scale of its costars mean that it feels like a much more emotive character instead of just a special effect. For the climactic scene at the end where it comes face to face with our heroes, the filmmakers used motion capture from actor Bruce Greenwood (who Abrams had previously worked with on Star Trek) to animate the creature’s face, and it makes all the difference in the world.
Super 8 isn’t perfect. There are moments where it seems to be putting to much import on the homage aspect instead of trying to tell its own story, and a few of the characters don’t get quite as much screentime or development as I might have liked, but on the whole it is very successful. The movie is filled with just the right balance of emotion and scene-stealing special effects. The train crash sequence alone is one for the books. This is one of the finest big-budget family films in many a year, and will deserve a spot next to ET and Back to the Future in the holiday schedules for a long time to come.