During one of the many featurettes included on the Super 8 Blu-ray, writer/director, J.J. Abrams, states that he had two different movie ideas. One was a coming of age story about a group of friends who set out to make a Super 8 movie. The other was an alien on the loose monster movie. Feeling that he couldn’t come up with enough material for the coming of age story, he decided to create a hybrid of the two ideas. A shame, because in Super 8, Abrams ode to the late 70’s/early 80’s movies of Steven Spielberg, the story of the four friends and the new girl they invite into their tight knit gang is more compelling, better written than anything to do with the invader on the loose. That aspect of the movie is more memorable and much more effective than 90% of the alien story.
Set in 1979, the story takes place in an small Ohio steel town, where the factory is in the middle of town and everyone either works at the steel mill or has a family member who does. In a heartbreaking opening, we meet young Joe Lamb (newcomer, Joel Courtney), whose mother has just been buried after dying in an accident at the factory. The 14-year-old boy sits outside in the snow, idly swinging and clutching a locket that belonged to his mother. As Michael Giacchino’s tender score plays through the scene, we meet Joe’s best friends, the one’s who will help him heal. We also meet his father, Deputy Jackson Lamb, played by Friday Night Light’s Kyle Chandler with his usual excellence. A drunk man named Louis Danard (Ron Eldard) arrives at the wake and is promptly hauled off to jail by Jackson. The Deputy is better equipped to handle lawbreakers than the emotions of his own son. Having grown up in a small Ohio town where adult men never expressed their emotions, I felt that Jackson’s actions rang true.
After the wake, the action jumps ahead four months, the end of the school year. As we get into the meat of the story, we get to know Joe’s friends. Charles (Riley Griffiths) is a budding filmmaker who is directing a zombie movie he hopes to enter in the Cleveland Film Festival. Being a typical kid director, he’s enlisted all of his friends to be his cast and crew. Preston (Zach Mills) is the most intelligent of the group, Martin (Gabriel Basso) is the dopey hunk with a pension for tears and nervous vomiting, and Cary (a hilarious and scene stealing Ryan Lee) is the smartass, pyromaniac. Needing a female for his story in order to provide emotional depth, Charles enlists Alice Danard, Louis’s daughter. She is played by the exceptional, Elle Fanning.
The four guys sneak out one night and are picked up by Alice, who’s stolen her dad’s car. They head out to an old depot to shoot a pivotal scene in Charles’s film.After Alice nails her rehearsal and steals each boy’s heart, they begin to film, just as a train is about to pass by. What happens next is one of the most thrilling, intense crash sequences in modern film. On the big screen it had audiences curled in their seats. On the small screen, it’s just as intense and scary. At this point, Abrams introduces the sci-fi element of his story and, well, things start to get a little wonky. Just one example is the possibility of any person, especially a pivotal character in the film, surviving a head on collision between the speeding train and the pickup truck he was driving. Moreover, he comes away from the accident relatively unscathed. Granted, this is a movie, but come on guys!
Following the train crash, mysterious events begin to unfold around town. Dogs begin running away (a plot point that’s never clearly explained), engines are ripped out of cars, and people begin to disappear, in the night by a humongous monster that’s seen only in glimpses. Abrams wisely uses Spielberg’s JAWS tactic throughout the film. When the military arrives to claim responsibility for the cargo on the crashed train, we all know that some kind of cover up is taking place and that these government men (led by a menacing Noah Emmerich) are up to no good. Eventually, the boys uncover the truth behind the train crash and the monster that escaped from it. At the same time, Jackson and Louis go on their own mission to save their kids.
Mixed in with all of the action and suspense is the remarkable coming of age story about Joe and Alice, who find comm on ground in the fact that they’re both being raised by single fathers (Alice’s mother skipped town). I can’t emphasize more how wonderful Courtney is in Super 8, most significantly in the scenes he shares with the more experienced Fanning. Together, these two actors capture the excitement and the heartbreak of being on the cusp of adulthood. It’s not just in the way they deliver the lines, but in the expressions they share and the quiet reactions during the most poignant scenes. For all the great action pieces in Super 8 that Abrams pulls off so well, he really has to be commended for his direction in the dramatic scenes.
What he also captures well is the camaraderie between the four boys. In nearly each scene they share, there is an authenticity that places those moments in a pantheon of great friend movies like Stand By Me. Abrams should seriously consider ditching sci-fi and thrillers for his next project and focus on a straight forward drama or dramedy. Watching Courtney, Griffiths, Mills and Basso interact, especially during the fantastic diner scene, took me back to my own childhood and the way my buddies and I would burn each other any chance we got, but we always had each others back in a pinch.
I’ve seen the film twice now, once in the theater and once at home. In the theater, with surround sound and a screen the size of my house, it was easy to get caught up in the spectacle of Super 8 and overlook some of its several shortcomings. Upon second view, the alien adventure is lacking in many ways, with some plot holes and an creature that betrays the film’s overall love of 1980’s aesthetic (when the main character discusses learning special effect from the Dick Smith Makeup Book and Steven Spielberg, the guy who build a life size T-Rex for Jurassic Park, is the executive producer, Abrams and company should have at least built a close up puppet of their overly complicated alien monster). That said, Super 8 is worthwhile viewing simply to experience the adventures of the kids. In watching that portion of the film, it’s hard not to wish that Abrams original intentions for the characters had been the only story.
The bonus features are plentiful on the Blu-ray/DVD combo pack. There are behind the scenes featurettes about the genesis of the film, the search and casting of unknown teen actors, a nice piece about the scoring of the film, and or course, plenty of deleted and extended scenes. In each of these bonus features, Abrams comes off as one of the most likable and generous filmmakers working today. Because of that, I hope he really does make a film that breaks away from genres. If he decides to follow a career path like his idol, Steven Spielberg, I don’t think it’s too much of a reach that this talented director will someday helm his own Schindler’s List or Saving Private Ryan.