You could argue that no film was salivated over last year more than “Super 8.”
We were all intrigued by that train crash and the mysterious pounding coming from behind the train car door.
And though it might not be the film we thought we were getting from that first teaser, no film lives up to those lofty expectations quite like “Super 8.” I’d go so far as to echo the sentiments of my friend and colleague Nick Rogers, who called it the best movie of the year to date.
And those other oft-shouted comparisons to “E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial” or “Cloverfield” (a natural and maybe even kind of lazy choice given it was “Super 8” director JJ Abrams’ other mysterious sci fi project not called “Star Trek”)? Those comparisons are probably apt given the movie’s tone, but you have to look at it as not just a mash of those two in plot, but in tone.
“Super 8” follows young Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney), a boy on whom much tragedy has befallen. At the film’s outset, we learn his mother was killed in an accident at the factory where she worked. That leaves him in the hands of his father, Jackson (Kyle Chandler of TV’s “Friday Night Lights”), a busy sheriff’s deputy who doesn’t have a lot of time to spend with his son.
Joe and his friends seem to fill much of their time making their own zombie movie. They witness the aforementioned train crash and its aftermath, where something large and strong appears to escape from the train. Soon the military shows up, and people start disappearing. Then Joe and his friends get their film developed and find out they have something much more than they’d believed.
A convergence of popcorn filmmaking and character development is what really makes “Super 8” tick. Abrams doesn’t bother ascribing to the “an explosion every 10” school of summer-movie filmmaking, though when the fireworks arrive, they are exciting enough. Abrams instead makes the kind of movie Steven Spielberg (who is coincidentally a producer on “Super 8”) tends to make: a big-budget blockbuster that focuses on character development and story.
In fact, you could call this film not so much an homage to Spielberg as Abrams on his knees like Wayne and Garth, chanting “We’re not worthy!” It’s a look at a “more innocent time” that really wasn’t; like another film it tonally emulates, “Stand By Me,” these pre-Xbox (heck, pre-Atari), pre-Internet, pre-Adam Walsh kids let profanities fly from their mouths to a degree most films made by marketing-obsessed studio exects today would never allow from children.
But virtually every beat works. The movie within the movie, which we get to see over the closing credits. The mystery of what this creature is. (Without ruining anything, let’s say that, like Abrams’ “Cloverfield” monster, what it is and what it does is both similar to and completely different than most anything else you tend to see in movies, even those of the sci-fi variety.) The tender, innocent romance between Joe and Alice Dainard (Elle Fanning), which propels the latter half of the film. The intense suspense/horror elements, which are real and palpable though not overwhelming for younger audiences. (I didn’t take my 6-year-old son to this one, but if he had a little more a taste for scary situations, I wouldn’t have hesitated.)
The film’s time period is important, taking place in the late 1970s, and I have to note a bit of trivia. One character drives a ’69 Buick Skylark (which the kids hijack at a pivotal moment in the film), which happens to be the very first car owned by yours truly and made me long for the days I cruised around in my old hot rod. It was one additional touch of personal nostalgia that this film so deftly rolls on throughout.
The young gaggle of actors are a find, especially Courtney, whose soulful eyes, yes, evoke memories of a young Henry Thomas (but that’s the last “E.T.” comparison, I promise; “Super 8 deserves to stand on its own) to Fanning, who, in the shadow of her big sis Dakota, has created taken less high-profile roles but built a solid resume all her own.
“Super 8” is a throwback with all the makings of a modern-day classic.