I will do my best to make no wordplay jokes on title of Super 8, tempting though it is. Luckily, I have enough to say about this movie that I don’t foresee any need to pad out this review with silliness.
The simple fact is that Super 8 is a delightful film.
Behold the preview:
Released June 10 2011
Written by J.J. Abrams
Directed by J.J. Abrams
Starring Elle Fanning, Kyle Chandler, Joel Courtney, Riley Griffiths, Ryan Lee, Gabriel Basso, Zach Mills, and Ron Eldard
* * * *
You want to compare Super 8 with Goonies, which is one of my personal favorite movies. Okay, it’s on my top 30. It’s easy to make this comparison. Goonies centers on a group of young kids, friends, who go through danger together and come out better people- and the chemistry amongst the friends was wonderful. Of course, you need a certain main character, and since these kids are either going through puberty or just passing it, there needs to be romance.
Super 8 thrives so well because it has a group of young, remarkably talented kids who act like kids would probably act in the situations they end up in. The fun and fresh feeling in this movie is like that in Goonies because we essentially see everything unfold through their eyes.
But that is actually where the comparisons end. Super 8 puts the kids and their town, Lillian, in grave danger. People die. A very scary critter is on the loose. And the back story is quite heavy.
The film begins with a very evocative sign in a factory. It is a sign saying “Days without accidents” and it has some large number on it. As we watch and the sound comes in, a fellow appears and changes the high number to ’1.’ So we know something bad has happened. Next we see a funeral scene, wherein two grown-ups discuss how horrible it is that this person died, and would the father step up?
Then we move to Joe Lamb’s (Joel Courtney) perspective, and never leave it thereafter. It turns out his mother was killed in an accident at the factory. When a fellow shows up at the funeral, Joe’s father hauls the man out and loads him into the cruiser he drives. Apparently Mr. Lamb (Kyle Chandler) is a Sheriff’s deputy and we are not sure of why he’s so furious with this other fellow.
The story jumps several months forward to the last day of school before summer break. Joe is best friends with Charles (Riley Griffiths) and Charles is making a film about a zombie outbreak on super 8 film. Hence the name. The movie is set in 1979 and Joe and Charles have a large group of friends who are participating in the making of this film. You have Cary, played gleefully by Ryan Lee. Cary is an ‘explosives’ expert. He knows how to use firecrackers to great effect. Then there’s Martin, played by Gabriel Basso. Martin is the tall boy who plays the lead in Charles’ film, and he’s got a very itchy stomach. Finally there’s Preston, played by veteran young actor Zach Mills. He’s kind of a chicken, but he still has an important part to play.
Charles’ film needs a female lead, so he asked Alice Dainard (Elle Fanning) if she would help out. Turns out Alice is willing to steal her father’s car and drive them all to the train station for a pivotal scene. When Charles mentions that Alice said she would do the movie, Joe’s face lights up. Joe is obviously carrying a torch for this girl.
At the station, Alice wows the boys with her acting ability. This is also where Elle Fanning wows the audience with her poise and remarkable talent. If she doesn’t eclipse her older sister Dakota, it will not be due to lack of talent. Elle Fanning is riveting throughout the film. It appears that she is 13 as of this writing and she certainly has lived a pleasant life, but she embodies the complex and clearly troubled Alice so completely that it’s hard to believe she is not older.
It is also while at the station that the main story of the film gets moving. While filming an important scene for Charles’ movie, a train approaches. They want the noise of the train in the background as it will add great production value. Joe holds the boom mic, but is horrified when he sees a pickup truck turn on the tracks and barrel toward the oncoming train.
What follows is the most spectacular and terrifying train crash I’ve ever seen put to film. And I just watched Fast Five last week. The train was moving fast, so it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that train cars would fly the way they do. The kids scatter; we see Alice dart into the station building. When the dust settles, the boys find each other– although this happens only after Joe sees/hears something pound with incredible force on the inside of a train car until the thick door is sent flying. They find blood on a torn piece of train car and are certain that Alice has bought the farm.
Luckily, she is fine; the blood was Joe’s fake blood. Important to the relationship that forms between Alice and Joe is that he is the make-up artist for Charles’ film.
It turns out the train was an Air Force train and that it contained something unexplainable. Soldiers show up to take over the scene and clean it up, and with inexorable force, they take over the town as well. Meanwhile, the kids are using the scenes of the soldiers and train wreck to add production value and authenticity to their film. At the same time, Joe and Alice are growing closer and we learn that Alice’s father was pivotal in a certain event in Joe’s life.
And while this is all happening, a big, terrifying creature that seems to have some kind of radioactivity around it, along with a bizarre magnetism and a strange affinity and hunger for mechanical parts, particularly engines, begins to terrorize the townspeople. Dogs flee. People disappear. Spectacular destruction ensues.
At the heart of the film is a group of friends trying to stay friends, avoid interruptions from meddling adults, and finish their friend’s project. At a deeper heart of the film is a touching love story between two adolescents who are connected by something horrible, but who feel something remarkable and beautiful. I add here that their dialogue is artfully and marvelously rendered.
And at the deepest heart of this film is a story about transcending the crap that life serves you, becoming better than you are, and finding a path to forgiveness.
The trappings of this film with so much heart are astounding. Simply incredible creature effects, great sound editing (if it doesn’t get at least an Oscar nod for the sound, I’ll be nonplussed.), spectacular set-pieces, marvelous writing and just flat-out flawless acting.
Special kudos to Kyle Chandler who is given a tough role as grieving and furious husband, torn father, stand-up hero, and tender-hearted man. Also to Joel Courtney. He does a marvelous job as Joe; his eyes are full of emotion and his acting is nicely understated. For me, Elle Fanning wins the prize. She owns the film inasmuch as any single actor could do so.
J.J. Abrams wrote and directed this movie and I continue to have only praise for the fellow. He tells a fantastic story, both with the pen and the camera. Somehow, my mother-in-law (Hi Mom!) didn’t like this movie. She liked The Tourist though, so clearly our tastes are very divergent. I couldn’t even bring myself to see that movie. The previews made my skin crawl.
Super 8 is what films are supposed to be. It takes the viewer on a remarkable journey, gets you to tear up when it should, makes you cheer when you ought to, and leaves you gasping when the right time comes. I loved X-Men First Class, but Super 8 is now easily in my top spot for 2011.
Content warnings: Lots of profanity, particularly from one of the kids; some marijuana use- mostly to comedic effect; violence and explosions
Writing: 5 Acting: 5 Overall: 5
Don’t believe me? See if my review matches those on Rotten Tomatoes.
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