In a season that has become rote with super powered heroes, swashbuckling pirates, giant transforming robots, vengeful wizards, and what else… ah yes, sequels after sequels, it’s refreshing, if not magical, to watch a summer blockbuster that aims to wow you not with nauseating 3-D and CGI explosions but with wonderful three-dimensional characters and human relationships. Created as an ode to his days as a budding filmmaker in the late 1970s, J.J. Abrams’ third feature film Super 8 is also a picture that evokes memories of the early blockbusters of the season, specifically Steven Spielberg’s E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. It’s the gelling of these nostalgic elements and Abrams’ A-level craftsmanship that makes Super 8 one of the most engaging and absorbing movie-going experiences I’ve had this year.
Set in the summer of 1979 in a small town in Ohio, Super 8 follows a group of kids who spend the summer shooting a low-budget zombie film on their Super 8 camera. Budding filmmaker Charles (Riley Griffiths) wants to make his latest film something more than a zombie movie. In order to accomplish this, he seeks the help of his closest friends – chief amongst are explosions-obsessed Cary (Ryan Lee), perpetually neurotic Preston (Zach Mills), a jittery Martin (Gabriel Basso), headstrong Alice (Elle Fanning), and Charles’ best friend – the gifted but shy and soft-spoken Joe (Joel Courtney). Still reeling over the sudden death of his mother after a steel factory accident, Joe has grown distant from his grieving father Jack (Kyle Chandler), the town’s deputy, who himself has all but ignored the existence of his son in favor of his work.
One night, while shooting a pivotal scene at the town’s train station, the six kids witness the horrifying (and spectacularly executed) derailment of a government freight train after it crashes into a suspiciously-placed truck on the tracks. Barely surviving the accident, the kids flee the devastated area with their cameras but not before noticing something in the shadows escaping from the train. Soon after the accident, the town is besieged by a series of weird occurrences – animals flee town, people disappear violently, machinery goes missing. But strangest of all is the sudden appearance of the U.S. army, including soldiers and scores of government agents. With no explanation for their arrival and no answers given, it becomes very clear to the kids that the government and the puzzling happenings are linked. As they continue to film their zombie movie, the group realizes that the answers to the mystery may be closer than they think – deep within the footage of their Super 8 camera.
Super 8 is two movies in one. The first is a coming-of-age story in the vein of Stand by Me, The Goonies and E.T. featuring the nerdy group of kids who set out to make a George A. Romero-styled zombie movie. This half of the film is flawless. Everything about it from the kids’ relationships with each other (be it friendly or romantic), their growing bonds and the length they go through to protect each other in life or death situations is masterfully handled by Abrams and his team. What makes this more effective is the wonderful performances he procures from his young cast who are simply put… extraordinary. This is especially true for Joel Courtney and Elle Fanning (Dakota’s younger sister) who are fantastic as the film’s two primary protagonists. Fanning displays a range that is deeper than I’ve seen in many leading actresses nowadays while Courtney, a first-time actor, is a charmer. Every time these kids were on-screen, I was glued. If this were the only thing Super 8 was about, it would have received my vote as the year’s best film.
Alas, it wasn’t to be because let’s face it – in today’s marketing-driven Hollywood, a film like E.T. or Close Encounters simply wouldn’t fly. If Abrams wanted to make a movie about kids making a zombie movie in the 1970s, he’d have to compromise by combining that story with a monster movie or something on those grounds and that’s essentially what we get. If one half of the film were based on stuff like Stand by Me, The Goonies and E.T. then the second half of the story would be akin to Jurassic Park, War of the Worlds and even a slasher horror movie like Halloween. Now I don’t know about you but I don’t see the connection between the two.
While I did enjoy this aspect of the film for the way it was shot (Abrams uses a lot of shadows and dimly-lit scenes to build the tension and mood and never fully shows the mysterious “thing” until the last 10 minutes or so), I was never hooked by the mystery the way Abrams and his team expected me to. Every time the attacks took place, I wanted the action to switch back to the kids and their antics. Worse, the way Abrams and team go about to unravel and tidy up the whole mystery by connecting the human story with it in the end felt ham-fisted and undercooked. In fact, I’ll even go as far as to call the ending derivative and perhaps, even bad. Seriously, it made me go… “WHAT? Is that how you’re going to wrap up the relationships? It’s unbelievable and just about as ridiculous as a fart in space!”
The bottom line is this… J.J. Abrams’ Super 8 is a magnificently-shot homage to the summer blockbusters of the late 70s and early 80s, specifically to the early films of Steven Spielberg. However, even though the film is a winner for the most part, with strong characters-arcs and wonderful performances by a talented cast of youngsters, the film falters in its final act because the central mystery of the film and the human story don’t align in the most derivative way possible. Furthermore, the big mystery thing is purely a McGuffin – a bad one at that. Regardless of these criticisms, I still highly recommend the film as you’ll be lucky to find even two mainstream options better than it this summer.