Movie Review – Super 8
– Summary –
Director : JJ Abrams
Year Of Release : 2011
Principal Cast : Joel Courtney, Elle Fanning, Kyle Chandler, Ron Eldard, Riley Griffiths, Ryan Lee, Zach Mills, Noah Emmerich, Bruce Greenwood, Gabriel Brasso).
Approx Running Time : 112 Minutes
Synopsis: While filming their own low-budget super 8 movie, a group of kids are witness to a spectacular train crash, which in turn unleashes something powerful and mysterious into the small town of Lillian, USA. When the military arrive and start behaving like there’s a major problem, all hell breaks loose as our kids begin to discover the truth of exactly what was being transported on that train.
What we think : Sublimely intelligent film from Abrams, once more proving he’s not just a director of pretty lens flares – Super 8 is a top tier film, featuring some magnificent performances from the key child cast, and ably backed up by state of the art visual effects and supporting cast. Super 8 is terrific.
Now that I’ve had time to digest JJ Abrams’ most recent directorial effort, the Steven Spielberg produced Super 8, I will admit that I’m still sitting here saying wow. This is a gem of a film, destined to become a true cinematic classic – and that’s something I don’t say lightly. While it has the potential to become lost in the jumble of increasingly poor Hollywood junk released into cinemas every week, and become yet another faded DVD cover sitting on the top shelf of your rental store, that would be a major disservice to Super 8’s sense of nostalgia and sheer cinematic love. It’s a film designed to rekindle the child in us all, a very Spielbergian trait, and considering Abram’s appears to have been taken under the wing of the Master himself these days, that’s hardly surprising. It’s a love affair with the American dream, a film about film, and above all, a film about love and the losing of innocence. No you filthy bastard, not that kind of innocence. Super 8 is spectacular and intimate, an emotional journey with a group of kids witnessing an unimaginable disaster within their community. There’s a lot to love about Super 8.
Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) lives with his recently widowed father Jack (Kyle Chandler) in the small US town of Lillian, in 1979, and enjoys making short films with his friends Charles (Riley Griffiths), Preston (Zach Mills), Martin (Gabriel Brasso) and Cary (Ryan Lee) – their current project is a short zombie horror film they intend to enter into a local short film competition. In the course of making their film, they enlist the help of local girl Alice (Elle Fanning), who begrudgingly agrees to take part. Alice, being the school hottie, seems unattainable to the boys, although she soon strikes up a friendship with Joe – Joe and Alice’s respective fathers have a certain enmity towards each other; Jack’s wife was killed while filling in a shift at the local plant when Alice’s father Louis (Ron Eldard) missed a shift drunk. Late one night, the kids are out filming a key sequence for their film, when they bear witness to a massive train crash, in which they are all almost killed. The crash was caused on purpose, with a local school teacher driving his utility directly into the path of the train. Joe and the kids unwittingly film the entire thing, and also to the escape of some kind of creature, a creature which had been incarcerated on board the train. The military arrive (as they always do) and start to “clean up” the mess, although their treatment of the locals leaves a lot to be desired – especially when mysterious occurrences start… occurring. All the dogs in town run away, car engines go missing and electrical items simply vanish, leaving the local police force confounded. The kids soon discover the secret behind what was on the train, and the race is on to prevent more lives being lost thanks to a militant Army commander, Nelec (Noah Emmerich) and his platoon of soldiers.
The 80’s were my formative cinema years. The movies released while I was young, and that had a profound impact on me at the time, included Empire Strikes Back, The Last Starfighter, The Goonies, Gremlins, Short Circuit and Neverending Story – all good wholesome family films from which you could draw decent life lessons and morals. Well, except for Gremlins – those critters just made me laugh. There’s a certain sense of innocence to cinema of the 80’s, at least in my eyes, the kind of pre-war on terrorism innocuous style drawn from a bygone era of American rural class and exuberance. The look and style of films made in the 80’s, especially the early 80’s, is unique to Hollywood – the tint of ubiquitous sentimentality seems to have been layered over all the films I found delightful as a kid. Films where kids had lead roles, especially Goonies and Neverending Story, drove my imaginative creativity to blatant plagiarism – I once wrote a short story which was an exact rip-off of Michael Ende’s The Neverending Story, only I changed the names of all the characters so people wouldn’t guess… of course, the first person I who read it said it felt a lot like The Neverending Story. Damn her. But the feeling of kinship with the kids in these films, of understanding their frustration with adults, the twinge of new appreciation for the opposite sex, of high adventure and desperate danger, never left me, and to this day I can recall the vivid memory of wiping away tears when Artax disappears under the mud of the Swamp of Despair (if you don’t understand what I’m talking about – you should stop reading this now and go watch The Neverending Story) and falling desperately in love with Tami Stronach’s Childlike Empress, the first time I watched Bastian battle Gmork. Nowdays, even kids films have to be smart enough for the grown-ups to watch multiple times, with plenty of irrelevant pop-culture references and slick humor devoid of heart to keep people happy. Super 8 tries to recapture the simple, long lost innocence in 80’s films a little. And I think it succeeds enormously.
Super 8’s themes are indelibly linked with my own life – themes of parental loss (I never lost a parent, but friends of mine did) and first love (boy, did I have a first love!) and exciting adventure (I lived on a farm – we adventured every day!) are redolent in this film, and JJ Abrams weaves a wonderful tale of youth intertwined with science fiction action. This a film about the love of film, and perhaps never a more Spielbergian themed ideology was created in Hollywood. These kids are trying to make a short film, using the technology of 1979 USA – a super 8 camera. Charles is the director, and he’s played wonderfully well by Riley Griffiths; you really believe he’s a genuine friend of Joe’s. Joel Courtney, in the lead role of Joe, looks for all the world a younger version of that kid from Almost Famous, just with better hair. He’s also a surprisingly good actor, with a large emotional range allowing us to invest ourselves into his plight. Another surprisingly good turn (although, in reality, it shouldn’t really be a surprise considering the pedigree her family enjoys) is Elle Fanning, as the love interest for Joe, Alice. Fanning’s “moment” in this film comes early on, when she delivers a performance for the in-movie short film that’s worthy of an Oscar on its own. Her on-screen chemistry with Courtney is excellent, as is their rambling ensemble work with the rest of the young cast members.
There’s a scene early on, where all the kids are sitting around a cafe table, and the conversation seems quite haphazard, with some of the kids talking over others and cross-cutting between them is a singular theme – the train crash – and it’s just beautiful. Remember, this is set in a time before Facebook, the Internet and mobile phones, when kids actually went outside to play instead of sitting in front of their X-box all day and being anti-social monsters! Yes, young ones, there was once a time when Facebook didn’t exist. I remember it well. This scene is a simple one – a bunch of kids sitting around a table talking, and yet it’s one of the more memorable ones because of the underlying subtext. The growing attraction between Joe and Alice, the frustration of Charles in losing his best friend to the foxy wiles of a girl, and the casual comedy between mates just making conversation. If there’s a single scene that underscores everything else wonderful about Super 8, then this is the one. It’s a lot like the scene in Stand by Me when Gordy tells the story to the other boys – gathered around the campfire, talking dirty and having a good time, with that camaraderie you can only seem to get as a child.
The predominantly young cast are all excellent, without exception, and inhabit their characters so completely they actually seem to become them, which is the sign of great acting. You believe these kids exist in this time, and you understand their exasperation when the adults don’t believe their stories. The adults do a serviceable job in their respective roles, although I think they are the films weakest part, funnily enough. The adult characters just feel…. underdeveloped. Kyle Chandler almost scowls his way through the role of Joe’s father, the police deputy trying to hold it together as his life, and town, fall apart around him. Ron Eldard plays the “town drunk” role to perfection, although his character didn’t strike me as one completely required for this film to work. Louis is a douche, alright, but for what purpose is he included in the movie? Comedy, antagonism, or some sort of retributive nature? It’s hard to tell exactly why he’s needed in this story, since the focus is on the kids, and there’s enough antagonistic monster action to supplant the requirement for a human version. Still, it’s the Spielbergian format we’re following here, and Abrams would have ensured at least one human on the low ebb was included. Noah Emmerich gives his Colonel Nelec a real nastiness, even though at first it seems he’s just being a typical hardass – later in the film, his true motivations are revealed, and he becomes a truly monstrous figure. Yeah, monsters are all around us as kids, and some of them even take the form of human beings, don’t they? Watch for a cameo from Dan Castellaneta, the voice of Homer Simpson, as a car salesman, as well.
What I enjoyed about Super 8, perhaps more than the overriding narrative of some sort of monster being let loose on a small town, were the moments Abrams included throughout it. The aforementioned cafe scene, the scene where Joe and Alice spend some time alone in Joe’s bedroom, just talking, the moment just prior to the massive train crash (which is genuinely amazing to watch) where the kids are shooting a scene for the short film within the film, the moment where Joe learns that Charles also has a crush on Alice… the list goes on. It’s a film filled with these little moments, moments you remember all the way through to adulthood (your first kiss, your first glimpse of boobs, your first near-death experience…. you know the kinds of things I mean…) and they’re tinged with an almost retrospective sadness that this kind of life isn’t what kids these days are getting. Is it a sadness that kids spend more time playing computer games and filming themselves committing criminal acts to put on YouTube that drew Abrams to make this film about a more innocent age? Or was it just happenstance? I’d imagine the young kids watching this film today would probably be mystified that the kids in this movie spend their time making a movie on a camera with film. It’s the moments, the little things, that make Super 8 a terrific film.
It’s perhaps a bold statement to make, but I think Super 8 is one of those epochal films that comes along which ends up defining a generation. Like Rebel Without A Cause, Stand By Me, and Reality Bites, Super 8 perfectly captures a moment in time that strikes a chord with viewers of the time – I wasn’t born in the USA, nor have I lived through a crisis like the one in this movie, but the flavor of the era, the soup of life back then, struck a real chord with me, because I am of a similar vintage. Those who aren’t in their mid 30’s may not get many of the ideologies in the movie, at least not in their contextual form, but like Stand by Me back in the 80’s did for Baby Boomers, this film brings a hammer blow to the buried memory of my childhood. Super 8 is a terrific film, regardless of your appreciation for science fiction or “monster” movies, of which this is an example of both. It’s perhaps best described as a coming-of-age movie, and a damn fine example of one at that. JJ Abrams connects with the audience through the kids in this film, and drags us kicking into the rabbit hole. I loved it, and I know you will too.
What Others Are Saying about Super 8:
Jose over at Movies Kick Ass thought it was terrific: “It might be corny to say so but more often than not Super 8 is a reminder of why we even go to the movies in the first place.”
Nostra at My Film Views felt the nostalgia: “Super 8 is an entertaining thrill ride which gave me that feeling of living in the eighties again, growing up and for that I can’t praise it enough.”
Jessica at The Velvet Cafe thought it was a bit hit-and-miss: “All in all Super 8 felt a bit like one of the sparklers the kids used. It burned brightly but ended quickly. It brought me a few smiles and a little bit of excitement for a couple of hours, but as soon as it was over, it was all gone. “
Ruth at Flixchatter thought it was good, but problematic: “There are giant loopholes in the plot as big as the monster in question, but in the end it doesn’t derail the movie.”
For a different approach to mine, Will at Silver Emulsion hated it: “Super 8 is a ridiculously over-the-top, unfocused, hole-filled mess that managed to rub me the wrong way at virtually every turn. This is exactly why I try not to review recent big-budget movies, because they’d all be pissed-off rants and that’s no fun for anyone.”
My pal Vik at Filmiac thought Super 8 was great too: “…what is far more important than story is three-dimensional characters (something ample films lack today), and that is where Super 8 succeeds with great flair. You can have all the originality in a story, but if we don’t empathize with the characters, it’s not likely to be effective…”
Tom Clift reviewed it thus: “Despite some rather large plot absurdities and an admittedly trite although not un-exhilarating final act, Super 8 is a wonderfully enjoyable movie going experience…”
Aiden at Cut The Crap scribed his review over at Moviefone, and thought it was awesome: “The train crash here is flat-out insane, the plot moves along at a really slick pace, and it’s a blast just watching these kids behaving like, well, kids. It’s nice to see a movie where teens actually swear once in a while.”
Dan The Man raved about it: “Makes me wanna hang-out with my childhood friends again, or what’s left of them anyway.”
Matt Shea over at 20/20 Filmsight writes a terrific article on Super 8: “Despite the hype built via its cagey marketing, Super 8 isn’t the best film you’ll see this year – you’d hope not, anyway – but for a substantial part of its running time it entertains with effortless style.”
And finally, Sam Fragoso writes about it over at Anomalous Materials: “….you know what? I had fun. And so will you. It embraces its summer blockbuster spirit. The action-sequences, in particular the first one we witness, is hauntingly brilliant.”
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