Directed by J.J. Abrams
Starring Joel Courtney, Elle Fanning, Riley Griffiths, Kyle Chandler, Ron Eldard, Ryan Lee, Gabriel Basso, Zach Mills, Noah Emmerich, Bruce Greenwood, David Gallagher
Out now on Blu-ray and DVD
With a pedigree that includes writing and direction by J.J. Abrams and production by Steven Spielberg, expectations for Super 8 have been high since the project was announced. Even the poster so closely mirrors the one for Spielberg’s classic Close Encounters of the Third Kind that comparisons are almost a fait accompli. But while Super 8 is competently made in every sense, it doesn’t ignite the kind of awe and spectacle that Spielberg’s oeuvre has held in the public’s mind.
Young Joe Lamb (played excellently by Joel Courtney) is a model-maker and aspiring make-up effects artist in 1979 in Ohio. His mother was killed in a factory accident, which has left his deputy father (Kyle Chandler) withdrawn, except for flashes of anger directed at Louis Dainard (Ron Eldard), the man he blames for her death. Joe is making a zombie film on Super 8 with his friend, Charles (Riley Griffiths), a chubby writer/director/aspiring wunderkind. Charles casts the winsome Alice Dainard (Dakota Fanning) in a role in the film, alongside others of his friends. One night, when they sneak out to film at a train yard, they witness an immense train crash, and though they don’t know it yet (since Super 8 film can’t be processed for days), their camera has captured something terrifying escaping from the wreckage. Soon enough, the military shows up and begins locking down the town. As they search for whatever escaped, the kids begin to realize something bigger is happening, as does Deputy Lamb. It’s no surprise that the escapee is an alien, but its motives and actions – and how those will intersect with the cast – drive the film’s second half.
Super 8 reminds one most of Stand By Me filtered through the lens of 1979 instead of 1959, even if it veers more into action and danger as the film progresses. It also homages E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (set in 1982), except with a malevolent alien and a missing mother instead of a missing father. The near lack of females except for the angelic Alice and the memory of the sainted dead mother is almost a cliché in and of itself in SF films, but the film is a preteen buddy-bonding movie after all (before it becomes preteen-Cloverfield). Joe and Charles are such geeks in training that the target audience won’t be able to help but identify with them, even if they didn’t try their own hand at movie-making in the pre-YouTube world. The other young boys in the cast are credibly awkward as well; there are few alpha males in this worldview, only gawky pre-adolescents who can sniff out the truth better than the adults.
While the train crash at the beginning is awe-inspiring, the alien material toward the end is at times murkily shot, and the alien’s motivations for many of its actions are unclear. The ending, including a moment with a locket Joe keeps of his mother, is both telegraphed and clearly Spielbergian. Whether you’ll find that inspiring or mawkish depends on your sentimentality factor.
To be clear, Super 8 isn’t a bad film, it’s just so specifically been-there done-it that audiences hoping for Abrams’ brand of twisting audience expectations will likely be disappointed.
Verdict: Well-acted and nicely shot, you may find yourself anticipating every scene because the homage factor is so high. 7.5/10
DVD/Blu-ray Extras: A commentary from Abrams, producer Bryan Burk and cinematographer Larry Fong and a couple of short behind the scenes featurettes are on all variants; there are more featurettes plus deleted scenes on the Blu-ray. The commentary is definitely worth a listen if you’re a fan of Abrams’ style of movie-making (using as many different techniques as possible to make the effect). PS