“Super 8,” writer/director J.J. Abrams' throwback to Steven Spielberg's films of the 1970s and 1980s, is the summer's only big budget film that is an original in the sense that it isn't based on any previous films or source material. In a summer awash with sequels, reboots, remakes and comic book adaptations “Super 8” is an oasis.
Produced by Spielberg and set in small town America circa 1979, two years after the release of “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and two years before “E.T.,” “Super 8” is like a lost Spielberg film albeit it one with Abrams fingerprints all over it. Abrams loves lens flares and at this point it is signature much like Spielberg's frequent use of shooting stars.
The film centers on a group of kids that are making a zombie movie when, while shooting a scene, they accidentally capture footage of a horrific train wreck that unleashes something on the town. The title refers to the film stock that was the standard for home movies and amateur filmmakers before the invention of video.
Soon weird things start to happen: Dogs start running away, car parts go missing and people start disappearing. The kids make a pact not to tell anyone they were at the wreck of what turns out to be a military train.
Yes, there is a creature running loose in this film, but it isn't about this monster. The film opens with a prologue that shows the funeral for the mother of Joe (Joel Courtney), the boy who turns out to be the film's main character. The film is really about how he and his father (Kyle Chandler) let go of that loss.
Part of what helps Joe move on in is the making of the film with his friend, which keeps him occupied and allows him to meet Alice (Elle Fanning) and begin a very tentative, sweet and innocent flirtation.
What the film gets absolutely right is the dynamic between the kids. The way they talk and interact feels authentic. These aren't merely cutesy movie kids who speak overly glib dialogue. The kids in the film come across as genuine kids.
Good kid actors are hard to find, but everyone here is great, particularly Fanning, who, though only 12 at the time of filming, shows depth, subtly and skills well beyond her years. She has a scene where she is rehearsing a scene for the zombie film and she brings such real emotions to it that it is hard not to be moved.
Courtney is very good as well. He shows a boy that tries to put a strong front up, but who is hurting from the loss of his mother. His relationship with his father is strained and removed. When he begins to discover love for the first time you can see how it changes his mood, but, wisely, it is played in small, quiet moments.
Of the rest of the kids, the stand out is Ryan Lee as a boy with penchant for explosives. Riley Griffiths as the director of the zombie film is also good especially has he starts using the real events unfolding as “production value” for his film.
As for that zombie film, the kids actually did write and direct it themselves. It plays over the closing credits and it is an absolute riot.
The last third of the film turns into an outright 1950s-style monster movie with better special effects and explosions. The switch in tone is a bit jarring, but at that point you're so invested in the characters that it is easy to just go with the flow. Abrams as a director does a fine job of keeping things at a steady pace that allows for character development and interaction. When things go crazy, in the end you actually care.
As is often the case with Spielberg films, there's a sentimentality to the film and there are moments that feel manipulative and heavy handed, but it is a testament to how well Abrams handles this material and his actors that these moments work and still affect almost in spite of themselves.
This is the kind of movie that you wish every summer movie could be. It is engaging, smart, funny and touching.