There’s nothing quite like returning to the old neighborhood to find that your childhood playground hasn’t been torn down. You run your hand along rope ladders deemed “unsafe” by modern standards, feel the crunch of pebbles beneath your feet that did more to cut than soften a fall, sit in the swing and think for a moment about jumping out at the highest point.
Super 8 is the cinematic equivalent of unearthing a time capsule and finding everything inside is still impossibly shiny and new.
It’s impossible to remove the film from its own nostalgia, except for its intended audience of children discovering this type of filmmaking for the first time (and maybe even seeing their first Amblin logo). That’s a pretty powerful thing. With everyone clamoring to tap a market of adults eager for their own past while simultaneously getting kids into seats, J.J. Abrams‘s latest is one of the few that actually succeeds.
Four months after his mother’s accidental death, Joe (Joel Courtney) believes he has the summer to himself and wants to spend it doing make-up and effects for his best friend Charles’s (Riley Griffiths) zombie movie. The project gets sweetened when Alice (Elle Fanning) agrees to join the production, but Joe’s father Deputy Jackson Lamb (Kyle Chandler) doesn’t want him wasting time with his geek friends or with the daughter of a man he despises.
Seeking higher production value (to compete against the older 15 and 16-year-old kids entering the film festival), the crew heads to a train station to film an emotional scene and winds up playing witness to a horrific train crash and the cargo’s escape. That cargo, of course, is one seriously pissed off E.T.
From the opening scenes, Super 8 sets its shutter speed as an action film with an emotional core. It’s a group of kids coming of age under the most dire of circumstances, and that involves spectacular scenes of locomotive devastation, slasher movie-style attacks from a giant monster, and a third act that’s set to the tune of tank explosions. However, all of that is noise compared to the power brought to the screen by Elle Fanning and Joel Courtney in particular. They are a Romeo and Juliet pairing that “like likes” each other in the purest sense of childhood. This movie is their story – one of disinterested and distracted fathers, disobeying orders, and discovering a friendship.
The gang, consisting of the bossy Charles, squeamish Martin (Gabriel Basso), burgeoning pyromaniac Cary (Ryan Lee), and nerdy Preston (Zach Mills), is plucked right from the Stand By Me factory, and each actor carries their stereotype to comedic perfection – they’re a fun group of friends, but that doesn’t mean their relationship can’t be complicated by disagreements, crushes, or the military firing large artillery into the sides of their houses.
Of course the military plays a major role here as the black hat of the story. Led by the calmly cruel Nelec (Noah Emmerich), it’s actually surprising/impressive to see what kind of lengths they’ll go to in hunting down the beast and treating the townsfolk like chattel.
Abrams has successfully learned to ape the style of Spielberg while adding his own lens flare to the design. The production, art, and costume design are so authentic that it seems like the crew had a time machine handy and shot this thing in 1979. Abrams and cinematographer Larry Fong use the camera both to make the city sprawling and comfortingly homey, and it’s always done as the view from behind the handlebars. This is the children’s movie, and we see the world through their eyes (which are only slightly shorter than citizens of the adult world). If only that view wasn’t obscured by far too many lens flares. Hopefully Abrams has gotten over his obsession with them, because winking at Close Encounters is clever, but lens flaring when characters are dropping into an unlit cave just spits in the face of physics (while shining a bright light into its eyes).
The creature design is also gruesome, believable, and it gets much more direct screen time than its cousin which destroyed New York City a few years ago.
Then, of course, there’s the spot-on score from Michael Giacchino (who also plays one of the deputies on the force). Airy and sweet, but destructive when it needs to be, he’s somehow found a way to evoke the era of Amblin without using any of the old tricks. It’s a wholly modern score that fits the film perfectly while swelling with past perfection.
Unfortunately, the film suffers from the volume being turned down on several elements. It may shoot for an emotional core, but all of the father issues and monster problems lay back in their porch swing after creating the single tear they were hired for. Abrams doesn’t write a complete story when it comes to what matters most beyond the friendship of a boy and girl. It doesn’t earn its ending, so what might have been a true Iron Giant-style sob-inducing moment comes off as slightly schmaltzy and false. Ultimately it’s a movie about letting go of some things and connecting with others, but the fantastic Kyle Chandler is wasted except as the neutered action hero.
That doesn’t stop the movie from being a fun, touching trip to a lost playground. It’s a drama that doesn’t both pausing before making jokes, an action film that feels free to interrupt heartfelt proceedings whenever it feels like it. Basically, it’s a lot like real life. The entire world of Super 8 and the people in it feel natural and alive, but the film could have been so much stronger.
The Upside: Great acting (especially from Ellen Fanning), a fully realized world, beautiful production design and scoring, a fearsome monster, and a trip back in time to childhood.
The Downside: The writing slacks off on finding real resolution to the family issues, there are a few stale acting moments, and that tubby kid seriously needed to stop saying “mint.”
On the Side: The film being made within the film by the group gets debuted during the credit sequence, and it’s fantastic.
Also On the Side: There are a lot of movie references, but also look out for the S&A Grocery Store in the heart of town (hat tip to my wife for spotting that one).