Talking about “Super 8” is tough because you really don’t want to give any part of the movie away. It has been shrouded in secrecy from day one, and it has miraculously managed to maintain that secrecy all the way to its release. Both J.J. Abrams and Steven Spielberg deserve some sort of medal for that as bloggers always seem to get information on all the big movies regardless of whether it spoils everything or not. Even Spielberg had his problems with “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” in keeping details under wraps. Who can you trust in Hollywood anyway?
Before you even head out to see “Super 8,” it’s easy to see it is a personal one for both Abrams and producer Steven Spielberg. It involves a bunch of kids who get together to make a movie with a Super 8 camera, and Spielberg did the exact same thing as a kid. I’m led to believe that Abrams was not all that, having made his entry into show business at the age of 16. Clearly these are natural born filmmakers as much as they natural born storytellers.
Anyway, the main character in “Super 8” is Joe Lamb, a 13 year old played by Joel Courtney. As the movie opens, we find that his mother was killed in a freak accident, and it inadvertently creates an emotional distance between him and his father Jackson (Kyle Chandler). To escape the pain, Joe works with his friend Charles (Riley Griffiths) to get his Super 8 zombie movie finished. But one night while filming at a train depot, they end up witnessing a train crash that puts the one from “The Fugitive” to utter shame. In the vicious aftermath, Joe sees something violently bursting out of one of the train cars. You wanna guess what it is?
“Super 8” really reminded me of home movies I made when I was Joe’s age, and its great fun watching these kids put theirs together with the limited resources on hand. When the army invades their town of Lillian, Ohio, they use that to their advantage. Heck, they even use the aftermath of the train wreck in their film, and it’s hard to argue against them doing that. Robert Rodriguez talked about how having less money to make a movie forces you to be more creative, and watching these budding filmmakers here more than proves that.
Like with many of Spielberg’s most popular movies, Abrams wisely doesn’t show too much of what is attacking Lillian, Ohio. Some people want to see what came out of that train car and impatiently await its unveiling, but even after all this time, its what you think it looks like instead of what it actually looks like that makes it all the more threatening. Our imaginations can be far more terrifying than anything filmmakers can come up with.
What also makes “Super 8” work is in how down to earth and relatable its characters are. Granted, they come across as the kind of stock characters that normally appear in monster movies, but they are invested with a lot of depth by its well chosen cast. That’s just as well because this movie could have been cheesy as hell in an “Independence Day” way, and that would have threatened to make it all unendurable for me.
The special effects are good in that they don’t overwhelm the. They also don’t call too much attention to themselves which would have taken us directly out of the moment. For a movie like this, it’s surprising how many special effects this particular movie seems to lack. It’s not like “Transformers” where every other thing you see onscreen is a CGI effect. Seriously, the characters prove to be more important than visual effects here, and that says a lot about this kind of genre film.
The performances all around are very good, and Joel Courtney is perfectly cast as the young boy at the center of the film. The other kid actors acquit themselves well even though I got a little sick of them telling each other to “shut up” time and time again. Best of all is Elle Fanning who plays Alice Dainard, the female star of Charles’ movie and the one Joe has a huge crush on. Just as she did in “Somewhere,” Elle continues to show a maturity and emotional depth beyond her years.
“Super 8” is by no means original, and echoes of both “E.T.” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” can be seen throughout along with those from the Abrams produced “Cloverfield.” Still, in the hands of J.J. Abrams, it is an excellent piece of storytelling that makes for the kind of summer movie we live for. Even though this his only his third movie, his last being the ever so excellent “Star Trek” reboot, he has proven to be one of the best storytellers working in both movies and television today. Having Spielberg along certainly helps too.
By the way, be sure to stay through the end credits. Believe me when I say they saved the best for last.
* * * ½ out of * * * *