After witnessing a mysterious train crash, a group of friends in the summer of 1979 begin noticing strange happenings going around in their small town, and begin to investigate into the creepy phenomenon…
As Super 8 opens on a dark factory set, the camera zooms in on a worker changing the numbers on a “Days without an accident” sign back to 1. Director J.J. Abrams then cuts to the Lamb house and 13 year-old Joe Lamb (played by 15 year-old new-comer Joel Courtney) alone outside on a swing in the snow, while the reception after his mother’s funeral takes place inside his house. Suddenly, a scruffy man, whom we later discover is Louis Dainard (Ron Eldard), approaches the house and he and Joe stare each other down. Through these initial short scenes, Abrams, in the style of 1970s and 80s Steven Spielberg (also a producer on the film), deftly establishes a lonely, isolated mood, as well as underlying relationships and one layer of the conflict, all of which will carry the characters (and the plot) throughout the movie.
Abrams then cuts to what will become the main plot: five friends, led by Charles (played by Utah Shakespearean actor Riley Griffiths), who use their summer holiday to make a super 8 zombie movie for a film festival. Through the banter (again in Spielberg’s vein – this time The Goonies and E.T.) of Joe, Charles, Cary, an explosives enthusiast and expert (Ryan Lee), straight-laced Martin (Gabriel Bosso), and the more fearful Preston (Zach Mills), Abrams realistically digs into the nuances of their complex, quirky, but innocent adolescent male relationships. Add to the mix love interest Alice Dainard (Elle Fanning), tapped by Charles to play the wife in the zombie flick, and Abrams successfully completes a love triangle fueled by the innocence of a first teenage crush.
Throughout the movie, Abrams uses a sense of humour to accurately capture 1979 small town culture: from his references to a Soviet invasion and starving Africans, to a flash shot of Joe’s Pee Chee folder (a school girl’s/boy’s staple throughout 1980s America), to the creative use and significance of the town’s water tower. Abrams even manages to capture small town morals. In one scene, after being chased by the bad guys into someone’s empty house, Charles grabs a drink that happens to be on the counter. Cary, appalled, says, “You can’t do that! It’s not yours,” to which Charles responds, “I’m thirsty and I’m in the middle of a war zone.” Additionally, in his attention to small town America, Abrams continues to pay homage to producer Spielberg through the kids riding bikes through the town (ala E.T.), an external threat to the town (ala Jaws), the reaction of animals to the threat (very Spielberg) and a group of kids outsmarting adults and saving the day (most Spielberg films of the 1970s and 80s.) However, although Abrams pays such huge homage to Spielberg, he is brilliant in his own right and clearly knows and loves his genre.
While Super 8 is set in small town America and could not take place anywhere else without significant alterations to the script, it contains much to recommend it to a British audience. Moving camera shots not only keep the plot moving, but also give the audience a feeling of events moving too fast and spiraling out of control. Action scenes follow all sentimental scenes, which also keeps the story going and the audience on the edge of its seat. In addition, the film focuses on both plot and character relationships, which build universal themes, such as teenagers will rebel and live to talk about it, greed and ambition cause destruction, and forgiveness enables healing: themes which transcend all cultures. While the special effects are impressive, they serve the story, rather than the story existing to serve the special effects (ala any Michael Bay movie). Finally, the cast could not have been better. Elle Fanning proves herself every bit as talented as her more famous older sister, Riley Griffiths’ experience with difficult, mature Shakespearean material comes through in his ability to handle the experiences and nuances of his character, and Joel Courtney is simply phenomenal as Joe Lamb: a 13 year-old who must deal with the death of his beloved mother and who feels alienated from his father. Like Elliot in E.T., Joe serves as the emotional driving force in Super 8. Much was made in America about this being his first acting gig. However, he had to audition for the role eleven times and compete with more experienced actors. In the end, his empathy and depth more then hold their own amongst his more experienced cast-mates.
I whole-heartedly recommend this movie, giving it 2 thumbs up, 5 stars, and 0 tomatoes. This movie is a must see for all fans of JJ Abrams or Steven Spielberg, as well as anyone who loves sci-fi or a character- or plot- driven movie; or anyone who made movies as a kid. Just make sure you stay for the credits. You’ll be glad you did.
Super 8 arrives in the UK, Friday 5th August 2011
9/10 – A must see movie! 2 thumbs up, 5 stars, and 0 tomatoes.
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