Besides establishing mystery surrounding what emerges from a train crash in a small Ohio town, the trailers for “Super 8” promised a throwback to the sense of magic and wonder in early Speilberg films, such as “E.T.” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” J.J. Abrams’ film delivers on that promise, although the homage comes with its pros and cons, and the mystery is only interesting because we care about the characters and the mood it’s trying to evoke.
“Super 8” is intentionally classic Speilberg right down to the themes: a group of kids, dealing with neglect and other familial issues, find strength in each other and together embark on adventure against a sci-fi backdrop. The film truly does feel like a cross between “E.T.” and “Close Encounters,” with a healthy dose of “The Goonies” and a dash of Abrams’ own “Cloverfield” thrown in. The recipe is a satisfying mix, sure to stir nostalgia in anyone who grew up on early Speilberg. For the most part, the film is successful at recapturing that magic; the territory comes with unavoidable pitfalls, but more on that in a bit.
The story centers on a group of adolescents who are making a zombie flick shot on Super 8 for submission to a film festival. Late one night, they sneak out to shoot some scenes at a train station and witness a horrifying train crash. Immediately, the military arrives and weird things begin to happen. Of course, the kids are drawn to solving the mystery behind what’s happening. The main character is Joe Lamb (Joel Mc Courtney), a boy whose mother recently died in an accident, and whose father (Kyle Chandler) is busy being the town deputy and doesn’t seem to understand his son. His likable group of friends includes Alice Dainard (Elle Fanning), the pretty girl they persuade to play “the wife” in the zombie flick, and Charles (Riley Griffiths), the chubby, aspiring filmmaker. They are rounded out by Cary (Ryan Lee), who is characterized by his love for fireworks, and Martin (Gabriel Russo), who is characterized by his propensity for vomiting. The film uses broad strokes for some of the supporting characters, but it works.
In fact, the kids are the best part. The young actors are talented, and they lack the cynicism of the Internet age; they look like Speilberg kids, wide-eyed and full of wonder. Joel McCourtney has no problem carrying the film without ever hitting a false note. Elle Fanning and Riley Griffiths are equally as good; these kids are naturals. The drama between them (and their parents) that forms the heart of the film is engaging and emotionally powerful. The magic isn’t in the special effects. It’s in the characters. It’s in the scene where Joe and Alice watch an old home movie together. It’s in the humorous and heartbreaking scene where Charles says his doctor insists that he’ll “lean out” and perhaps one day become attractive to girls.
The sci-fi backdrop against which the drama plays out isn’t quite as interesting. Weird events happen around town, such as dogs running away, and there is almost certainly a monster on the loose, but none of it is developed enough, and it’s not always as exciting as you want it to be. I’m okay with some things being left unexplained and the events retaining some of their mystery, but some it feels random, and the action occasionally lacks thrills. And the revelations don’t feel particularly creative. Ultimately, these things are secondary to the characters; they gain strength due to the characters, and that fact is even noted in the zombie film within the film. (By the way, stick around for during the credits for a special treat.)
The other major drawback is inherently tied to the film’s greatest strength. Because “Super 8” so effectively emulates early Speilberg, there is a level of comfort and familiarity to the point where it becomes predictable. I’m the last person to fault a film merely for being predictable, but when you anticipate every beat, some of the suspense gets drained from the proceedings. The film is (and wants to be) the equivalent of a cozy blanket and grilled cheese, but it’s hard to be drawn into the peril when you feel so safe.
At the same time, it’s hard to complain. “Super 8” made me long for a time when films had heart and magic. There was still a moment where I nearly teared up in the final scene. I’ll take sincerity over irony any day. Even if it’s homage.
4 out 5 stars
“Super 8” will be reviewed on the next episode of Movie Dudes.