- Movie Rating -

Super 8 (2011)

| June 8, 2011 | 0 Comments

Super 8 is one of those great sci-fi adventure films that comes along once in a blue moon. It is made by the kinds of professional filmmakers who love movies and who know how to make a grand entertainment that involves us rather than simply provide a mindless weekend entertainment. Fortunately for us, those professionals just happen to be producer Steven Spielberg and writer-director J.J. Abrams. It is on the level of Spielberg’s great early work like E.T. and Close Encounters and Jaws. It’s that good.

Like all great sci-fi movies, “Super 8” builds its supernatural story out of organic people and places. It establishes characters that we care about and then puts them into a whirlwind of action, terror and special effects that really mean something. In that, Super 8 is really two movies. First is a wonderful portrait of a group of kids trying to make a movie with a “Super 8” camera, and second are the events that take place after an accident turns their world to chaos.

The movie takes place in 1979 in a small town in Ohio, where 12 year-old Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) nurses a wounded heart. His mother died in an accident four months ago and he and his father haven’t even begun to put the pieces back together. Presently, Joe is attempting to help his over-bearing best friend Charles (Riley Griffiths) make a homemade zombie picture that he hopes to enter into a local amateur film competition. Charles is the kind of wannabe director who doesn’t simply want special effects, but also wants his picture to have the added level of a love story. For that, they get a local girl Alice Denard (wonderfully played by Elle Fanning) to be their love interest.

One night, while filming on a train platform, Charles is overjoyed when he gets the added effect of having his actors perform while a train is roaring by. That’s when Joe notices a pickup truck turning onto the tracks right into the path of the train. The scene goes on for several breathtaking minutes as the kids duck and cover and run for their lives as pieces of the train crash and explode around them. In their haste to escape, they fail to notice that something strange has been released from the train. It takes some time for them to realize that whatever has escaped has been recorded by Charles’ camera.

The train belongs to the Air Force and whatever it was carrying is now loose on the town. Odd things begin happening: people disappear, dogs leave town, appliances and cars disappear. It is Russians? Electro-magnetic disturbances? Biblical end-times? Thor? No one is sure.

I will say no more, except to say that if you’ve seen the trailer, it really doesn’t give much away in terms of the plot. What happens in this film is too rich and too well-detailed to spoil in a 2 minute trailer. I expected the science fiction plot. I expected the special effects. I expected scenes of the town in ruins, with the military shooting at God-knows-what, but I didn’t expect was the extra layer of having well-drawn characters right in the middle of an action plot.

Joe occupies the home of his widowed father (Kyle Chandler), who is bitter and angry over the death of his wife Elizabeth (Caitriona Balfe). He is so bitter that he even forbids Joe from associating with Alice, the daughter of Louis Dainard (Ron Eldard), the man responsible for Elizabeth’s death. That story has an interesting twist of its own.

The film is focused on the kids who exist in the years between childhood wonderment and teenage cynicism. They haven’t shed the former and they are slowly inching toward the latter. They have reached the age when they have settled comfortably into curse words but haven’t quite settled on exactly how to use them. When they ride their bikes you can see that puberty has lengthened their bodies to a point where they are getting too big for them. We can see that, for these kids, sex hasn’t become a preoccupation so much as simply getting a pretty girl to notice them.

These are kids, not short adults. They do and say things that kids might. That’s especially true for Charles, who seems to have seen Dawn of the Dead enough to want to duplicate it. He’s the kind of tall, chubby kid who’s loud voice makes him the dominating mouthpiece over his friends. There’s also Cary (Ryan Lee), the short kid with a face-full of braces who carries a bag full of fireworks and has a preoccupation with blowing things up. There’s Martin (Gabriel Basso), a kid with big glasses who always nauseous. There’s Preston (Zack Mills), a gawky kid who is easily intimidated. Everybody grew up with kids just like this.

I realize that I have made the film sound like a coming-of-age picture which, in part, it is. These characters are so interesting that you can imagine them at the center of almost any plot. It is a testament to the screen writing that they give this ridiculous story depth and weight. I have purposely avoided giving away much of the sci-fi plot. What becomes of that story is not your standard battle-action nonsense. There is gunfire but the action scenes also have presence, so that we always know what is at stake, rather than be overloaded with bucket of hyper-active editing.

Some may think that I am over-praising Super 8, but I think it is refreshing to finally have a science fiction movie that is true to the wonderment of the genre. This is the kind of film that started Spielberg’s career and is making J.J. Abrams one of the most talented creative minds of his generation. This is a film made by people who love movies and know what a summer movie is supposed to look like.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.