There are very few names in Hollywood that garner my attention like Steven Spielberg. It doesn’t matter that his last film (“Indiana Jones and the Murder of My Childhood”) was stunningly bad or that he’s attached his seal of approval to lackluster blockbusters (“Transformers”). In my mind, he will forever be the guy who brought me “Jaws”, “E.T.”, “Jurassic Park”, and “Saving Private Ryan” among a whole host of other excellent films. I imagine I will always buy stock in what he’s selling. Over the last couple of years, J.J. Abrams has been rapidly working his way toward Spielbergian territory. The work he did in the early seasons of “Lost,” his devotion to attention in “Star Trek” and a number of other high quality projects have led me to trust Abrams almost unconditionally. I love the guy and maybe more importantly, I love what he represents: at his core, Abrams is a nerd who likes nerdy things; he just happens to have millions of dollars at his disposal to bring his nerdy ideas to life. With those thoughts in mind, you can probably guess my level of interest in “Super 8”, a movie produced by Spielberg and directed by Abrams.
In the summer of 1979, a group of young teenagers gather at the edge of their small Ohio town to create a horror film. Shooting with a handheld 8mm camera at a nearby train depot to add some “production value” to their film, the kids suddenly find themselves in the middle of a harrowing accident when a truck derails a heavily loaded train. They consider themselves lucky but then strange things begin happening. Pets run away; the government floods the area with super secretive soldiers; power outages become routine; and then people start disappearing. All of this comes to a head when two members of the group, Joe (Joel Courtney) and Charles (Riley Griffiths), review the footage shot on that fateful night and catch glimpse of an alien predator that was locked away inside the train. With their neighborhood a war zone and one of their number missing, our young heroes must find a way to save their town, and a few lives in the process.
“Super 8” is like a great recipe that comes together to create an incredible sci-fi entrée. Take one cup of “Stand By Me” and mix it with a cup of “E.T.” if E.T. wanted to rip your throat out and eat your dog. Stir in a tablespoon of “The Goonies” and season with a dash of “Cloverfield.” Top it off with just a hint of “District 9” and then, if you’re really brave, add a touch of early Shyamalan. As a friend of mine said, even if you didn’t know who made “Super 8”, you would guess that it is the love child of Steven Spielberg and J.J. Abrams. That assessment is spot on as this film draws liberally from the great sci-fi and coming of age films of that past. In no way, however, do I mean that as a negative. Abrams displays great respect and undying affection for these films, making “Super 8” a terrific homage to his influences rather than a rip-off.
Everything about “Super 8” is a throwback, in its own way a slap in the face to the Michael Bays of the world. It is simple but refined, all about the little things, rather than the spectacle and yet the train derailment will undoubtedly end up being one of the very best FX sequences of the year. Camera angles are used to simultaneously hide the alien and hammer home the terror that our characters are going through with an excellent mix of wide shots and close ups. The use of light and natural sounds add organic atmosphere to the film in a Coen-esque way. Prop placement, too, adds ambiance in a subtle, smart way; it isn’t overdone but there’s more than enough to keep nerds like me happy. Abrams’ vision is wide and “Super 8” takes on a number of different (but cooperative) storylines but he, and therefore his film, never loses sight of the end goal. He captures the respective essences of the formative teen years and the duality of suspense and thrill that you get in the best alien/monster films. “Super 8” never suffers from an identity crisis and the blending of its two branches is nearly seamless.
All of that work would be wasted, however, without a great cast which fortunately (and perhaps surprisingly), “Super 8” has. There are no real names associated with this cast but as I imagine Abrams planned, that only heightens the realistic feel of the film. I am always nervous about a film that puts child actors in important roles (Jake Lloyd, anybody?). This particular group assuaged those fears almost immediately. As Joe, son of the town deputy and the glue that holds the group together, Joel Courtney is delightfully honest and compelling. He seems like a real kid, not an adult playing a kid and not a kid playing adult. Elle Fanning, forever connected to Joe through tragic circumstances, commands attention in every scene and displays her true potential. Riley Griffiths, the obligatory tubby kid with a foul mouth, is somehow refreshingly unique despite taking up perhaps the most cliché role in the film. These kids have excellent chemistry with one another in a way that truly reminded me of “Stand By Me.” In addition, the adults surrounding them really compliment the kids. Ron Eldard is one of those actors who never get big roles but whom I always gravitate to when he appears on screen. (I call this group the Barry Pepper All Stars.) Kyle Chandler is perhaps the most recognizable face and in a way, he’s just playing his character from the “Friday Night Lights” TV show, only he’s got a gun and a badge instead of a whistle and a ball. During the few scenes that he’s asked to carry, particularly one in which he exquisitely displays the pressure he is under both at work and at home, and another in which he offers simple and genuine forgiveness to Eldard’s character provide sincere weight and depth to the film’s more dramatic moments. These are understated, excellent performances across the board.
The final 20 minutes of “Super 8” and the reveal of the alien are a bit off; the last act doesn’t quite measure up to the expectations laid out in the first two. But for me that’s a small issue when put up against the serious awesomeness puts on the table to that point. “Super 8” is gloriously entertaining and as honest as sci-fi can be. It is nostalgic brilliance that I absolutely LOVED and I for the first time in a while, I can’t wait to get back into the theater and see it again.
Spielbergian will be a word by 2025,