In weeks leading up to the release of Super 8, the film came up in conversation with several friends. And in almost every instance, the person I was talking to said something along the lines of, “It looks interesting, but I have no idea what it’s about.” And while this is certainly a valid comment, I couldn’t help but think, “Yeah, but isn’t that the point?” The film’s cryptic marketing campaign teased the film just enough for audiences to know that some crazy stuff was going down, but it also kept most of the plot turns under wraps. And amid complaints that a lot of film trailers today give away “too much” of the film, this seemed like the perfect antidote. Yet now that a film was playing it coy, it seemed like people didn’t feel invested.
But if you ask me, it’s best to go into this film knowing very little about it, like I did. All you really need to know is that Super 8 takes place in the late 1970’s, and it’s about a group of friends who are making a zombie movie. While they’re making it, they witness a train crash, and after the accident, a plethora of strange events start taking place in their small Ohio town. One of the boys, Joe (Joel Courtney), is the son of the town’s deputy sheriff, Jackson (Friday Night Light‘s Kyle Chandler), who inherits the job of keeping the town calm during the aftermath of the accident.
Of course, there is much more to the story than that, but at its heart, Super 8, is a really fun adventure movie. In a lot of ways, it harkens back to the films of Steven Spielberg (who is an executive producer here) from the 1970’s, such as E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and it has a wonderful twinge of nostalgia to it. But while it’s easy to draw parallels to other movies (the Stand By Me comparisons are also inevitable), director J.J. Abrams does a great job of balancing his obvious love for “retro” films with a thoroughly modern, FX-driven approach to the movie. Super 8 is bound to please both adults who remember the movies from the era that it references, and also older kids and teens who can identify with the film’s main characters.
Super 8 works quite effectively as an action blockbuster (for example, the train crash sequence near the beginning of the film is full of eye-popping, elegantly choreographed explosions), but I don’t think it would have worked nearly as well as a film if it weren’t for the strength of its two young leads. Courtney adds heaps of warmth (and disarmingly expressive, saucer-like eyes) to his quietly brave protagonist, Joe. He makes it easy to connect emotionally to a character that could seem distant because of his back story, and thanks to Courtney’s assured screen presence, it’s not a stretch to believe Joe as a hero. And Elle Fanning takes a step out from her usual waifish roles to play the outwardly bold but emotionally skittish love interest, Alice. Fanning is obviously the most experienced of the kids in the cast, and while that does show to an extent, she also becomes surprisingly believable as “one of the boys”. She and Courtney (in his first on-screen acting performance, by the way) also have a lovely chemistry that makes their romance sweet rather than sickly.
I’m always looking for movies that are just a blast to watch, and though they’re surprisingly hard to find, Super 8 is definitely one of them. Abrams (who also wrote the film) sets up each of the kids in a way that makes you care about them, and even amidst all the craziness that takes place in the movie, those characters never lose their sense of fun. Of course, you could pick the movie apart and argue that the children react to traumatic events in an unrealistic way, but that’s obviously the point. And for the type of film that Super 8 is, I’d much rather see the kids still cracking wise and bickering amidst the action, rather than getting relegated to plot propellers.
Because I cared so much about the characters, I found myself very emotionally invested in their plight. Joe and Alice share a couple of very tender, emotionally honest moments, and I found myself tearing up on two or three occasions during the film. I can’t say this about many films, but over the course of Super 8 I literally laughed, and I literally cried. Maybe it’s my own nostalgia for childhood (not that I’m very far beyond it), or the values of friendship, loss, and loving movies that the film celebrates, but Super 8 packs a surprising emotional punch.