Super 8 (United States, 2011)

June 10, 2011
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Super 8 Poster

Super 8 is an homage by its writer/director, J.J. Abrams, to its producer, Steven Spielberg. It's also a love letter to all those with a passion for filmmaking that emerges at a young age. Super 8 is the kind of high-profile movie we so rarely see these days: an original story (not a sequel, spin-off, re-boot, or adaptation) in 2-D. The special effects are state-of-the-art (would anyone expect anything different from an Abrams/Spielberg collaboration?) but are not used gratuitously. Unlike many science fiction features, this one puts the characters before the monsters and the big bangs. Abrams remembers the simple rule that a majority of his contemporaries have forgotten: action and mayhem have meaning only when an audience cares about the people trapped within the maelstrom.

Abrams brings an element of biography to Super 8, recalling the days when he, like many future filmmakers inspired by the crop of visionary directors exploding onto the scene in the late '70s and early '80s, borrowed his parents' Super 8 camera and made a "movie." Setting the action in 1979 also allows for a dose of well-earned nostalgia when it comes to music, clothing, attitudes, and technology. The Super 8 camera is, of course, an artifact of the past (today's kids use smart phones to get their cinematic feet wet), but one cherished by many. Without the Super 8, would there have been a Spielberg, a Francis Ford Coppola, or a George Lucas?

It's impossible to watch Super 8 and not hearken back to two of Spielberg's best-known early productions: Close Encounters and E.T. There are also elements of his "darker" efforts - Jaws, Jurassic Park, War of the Worlds - and nods to some of the titles Spielberg leant his name to in a production capacity - Poltergeist, Gremlins, The Goonies. As a director, Abrams' resume is too short for him to claim a distinctive "voice" (although there were hints of it in 2009's Star Trek buried under the weight of the mythology of an iconic universe), but it begins to emerge in Super 8. It's a little faster, sharper, and edgier than Spielberg's, but not so different a Spielberg influence is out-of-place.

Super 8 follows the misadventures of six young teenagers who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. The project that brings them together is the filming of a clandestine zombie movie which requires them to sneak out of their houses at midnight and assemble next to a nearby train station. There, they can make their Super 8 project without the interference of adults who just don't get it. They are Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney), the film's makeup and special effects guru; Alice Dainard (Elle Fanning), the main actress; Charles (Riley Griffiths), the director; Cary (Ryan Lee), the pyromaniac cameraman; Preston (Zach Mills), the lighting guy; and Martin (Gabriel Bosso), the main actor. Things are going well, especially for Joe, who finds himself getting along with Alice, the object of a crush, when disaster strikes. A train derails spectacularly, throwing debris in all directions. Was the derailment an accident or a deliberate act of sabotage? Why does the military, led by the grim-faced Colonel Nelec (Noah Emmerich), swarm over the site almost immediately? And what is the creature glimpsed moving through the wreckage of the train?

One obvious lesson learned by Abrams from Spielberg has its roots in Jaws: when it comes to the monster, less is more. To that end, until it comes time for the "big reveal," the creature is glimpsed only briefly. Even during an attack on a bus (which recalls the T-Rex rampage in Jurassic Park), the camera avoids lingering on the monster. With Jaws, this was a happy accident, necessitated by the fact that the fake shark looked too silly to put on screen for long. With Super 8 and its refined special effects, it's a deliberate decision.

The relationships among the kids represent the movie's heart and soul. These six friends act toward one another in much the way real nerdy adolescents do. There's the dominance of Charles, the rivalry between Charles and Joe for Alice's attention, and the emergence of Joe as the unlikely hero. Home life also comes into it, with Charles' large, bustling family being contrasted with the contentious relationships between Joe and his police officer dad, Jack (Kyle Chandler), and Alice and her disreputable father, Louis (Ron Eldard). As with so many movies focused on youthful protagonists, however, the adults are of secondary concern, functioning more as plot devices than fully fleshed out individuals.

The fresh-faced actors bring believability without baggage to the film. The one with the most experience is Elle Fanning, who has emerged from her older sister's shadow with a series of strong performances - Super 8 will enhance her reputation. Joel Courtney shows more poise than one might reasonably expect from someone making his professional debut; he's the lead and there's never a reason to doubt his casting. Also notable is Ryan Lee, whose off-kilter portrayal of Cary adds an element of comedic relief (not that Super 8 ever becomes dark enough that it needs it); he'd be a good choice for a remake of The Lost Boys.

In a way, Super 8 offers to today's generation of movie-goers a hint of what it was like for those of my generation to go to a theater during the '70s and '80s and experience the latest product of Spielberg's imagination and skill. Over the years, Spielberg has matured as a filmmaker but some of his best endeavors remain those when he was still experimenting as he perfected his craft. Perhaps that's where Abrams is today and, by looking back to Spielberg, he is establishing his own course forward. Super 8 is in many ways a perfect summer movie: smart, exciting, heartfelt, and suffused with nostalgia. It's a great thing to see a motion picture spectacle that does not require a temporary lobotomy for gratification.

Super 8 (United States, 2011)

Director: J.J. Abrams
Cast: Joel Courtney, Elle Fanning, Riley Griffiths, Ryan Lee, Kyle Chandler, Ron Eldard, Noah Emmerich
Screenplay: J.J. Abrams
Cinematography: Larry Fong
Music: Michael Giacchino
U.S. Distributor: Paramount Pictures
Run Time: 1:52
U.S. Release Date: 2011-06-10
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1