Can we all agree that writer/director J.J. Abrams has a gift for hype? When I saw the teaser trailer for Super 8 last summer—the one that only showed the pick-up truck derailing the train and something (but what!?) thundering around inside—I knew I wanted to see the movie. For the better part of a year, few other details were released. Then there was the slow, steady media build in interviews during which Abrams described wanting to do a monster movie through the eyes of kids making a monster movie. Finally, a real preview came out during the Super Bowl. Being this good at hype, however, can be a risk.
Super 8 focuses on a quintet of friends in a small Ohio town making a zombie movie for a Dayton film festival during the summer of 1979. Charles (Riley Griffiths) is the intense writer/director. Cary (Ryan Lee) does special effects. Preston (Zach Mills) runs the camera. Joe (Joel Courtney) is in charge of makeup and sound. And Martin (Gabriel Basso) and Alice (Elle Fanning) are the stars. While filming a scene during the middle of the night, the kids witness a train derail and explode, nearly killing them all. Their secretive biology teacher, who derailed the train by crashing his truck on the tracks, warns them not to tell anyone what they’ve seen or the consequences for them and their families will be dire. The problem is, they’ve caught the whole thing on film. So, when strange, violent things begin to happen around the town, they’re all more than a little nervous. Adding to the tension, Joe’s dad, Deputy Jackson Lamb (Kyle Chandler), is leading the investigation while also grieving the death of his wife and trying to figure out how to be a single parent.
Admittedly, I have pretty retro taste. One of my favorite aspects of Super 8, though, was the extent to which it felt like a product of 1979. The clothes, sets, cars, props, and music worked together to create a movie that felt entirely late-70s. Not only did the film consistently and accurately portray the year, it also evoked memories of my favorite 70s-80s monster movies. Walking out of the theater, my friends and I were trying to solve the equation “Goonies + ? = Super 8.” Parts remind me of Jaws others of ET others, of every fun monster movie I’ve ever seen. Perhaps this nostalgia for older great movies is part of what holds Super 8 together. It’s not the most creative movie I’ve ever seen, but the throw-back elements really work.
Further, the film includes some fantastic camera work. My favorite shot is when the alien attacks at a gas station and the spinning sign goes through its cycle just in time to obscure the creature. That kind of coyness is typical of the first half of the film and adds to the almost B-movie appeal of the plot.
The best part of the movie, though, is the dynamic between the kids. While a monster is pretty scary, the little fights between Charles and Joe, the awkwardness of a first crush, and Martin’s cracking voice once again assert that puberty is scarier. Ryan Lee as Cary has an infectious energy and his delivery of a plethora of one-liners is hilarious. Similarly, Riley Griffith’s performance as Charles oozes the urgent seriousness of a kid trying to make great art, which is both endearing and funny. While Elle Fanning is certainly a gifted actress, at times her performance as Alice was boring. I wished she’d had more gumption. Joel Courtney as Joe does a wonderful job holding the group together while also serving as a bridge between the kids’ plot and the grownup plot. Opposite Kyle Chandler, he is believable and endearing as a grieving kid looking for affection and guidance, without traveling too far into sappiness. While the kids are hilarious, the adults are kind of accessories. As Deputy Lamb, Chandler basically demonstrates the acting skills that have made him beloved as Coach Taylor on Friday Night Lights—the stern face, the I’m not going to cry but a I want to face, and all-around intense command of the scene. As much as I love him, I hope his next role is something different.
Some parts of the film are a bit too familiar, though. The movie’s ending brings in some half-hearted parenting “triumphs” that felt tossed in without much effort and the triteness didn’t carry well. Other parts of the movie were over-done. As impressive as the train derailing was to watch, there’s no way I could believe all of the kids would have survived it. Even for an alien movie it was far-fetched. Also, the military presence felt hyperbolic. Nonetheless, Super 8 was a joy to watch for its sense of wonder, consistent aesthetic, and childlike sense of humor. All the hype paid off and Super 8 lived up to my high expectations 4/5 stars
Super 8 was written and directed by J.J. Abrams and produced by Steven Spielberg. It runs 112 minutes and is rated PG-13.
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