SUPER 8. 111 mins. PG-13. Written and Directed by J.J. Abrams.
Shrouded in secrecy and hugely anticipated by anyone who cares anything about movies, the new J.J. Abrams-Steven Spielberg collaboration, Super 8, delivers summer entertainment thrills in ways moviegoers haven't seen in decades. Super 8 evokes waves of nostalgia for the films you enjoyed as a child, and functions as an homage to the late '70s/early '80s Spielberg films that a young Abrams was so clearly influenced by. It is a marvelous movie, made special not by visual effects and bombastic action sequences (though both are certainly not in short supply here), but by solid storytelling, heartfelt acting, and Abrams' unrivaled - except for maybe Spielberg himself - ability to craft smart, populist films.
Set in small town Ohio in 1979, Super 8 follows a group of friends making a zombie film on their summer break. When an Air Force train carrying mysterious cargo crashes in spectacular fashion, the kids find their movie disrupted and lives in danger. The crash triggers a series of weird happenings in town - dogs running away, engines and other electronics stolen, and disappearances. The Air Force and military invade the town, turning it into a war zone of sorts, and it's up to the kids to finish their movie and save the day.
Abrams has always had a keen eye for casting, and he does a knockout job with the child actors in this movie. All are wonderful, and each is given their own distinctive quirk, but Joel Courtney (Joe) and Elle Fanning (Alice) are consistently great - acting circles around their peers. It helps that their characters are the most developed, with Joe trying to recover from the death of his mother and the tenuous bond with his father (Friday Night Lights' Kyle Chandler), and Alice trying to make the best of an alcoholic dad (Ron Eldard) and a terrible home life.
Many of the best scenes are the smaller ones, featuring any combination of the kids just talking or hanging out. Abrams, who also wrote the screenplay, fills the screen with dialogue even when the focus is on something else. It's a technique that hasn't really been used well since The Goonies (maybe The Sandlot too), but it's immediately identifiable and rewarding in that respect. The kids behave as kids and interact in a wholly believable manner. Even when the lines themselves may not be as memorable or quotable (other than "Mint" to describe something cool), the rat-a-tat, layered structure of the dialogue is a joy to hear.
Abrams also nails the suburban home life of the '70s family unit. The scenes set in Charles' (Riley Griffiths) bustling home are chock full of rich details - the hair, the furniture, the behavior of the kids. Even the shot selection is pitch perfect - the way Joe fills up a dog bowl with food, or when the camera follows Charles under his bed to look for a magazine. All of it recalls the tone, look, and feel of Spielberg classics like Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T.
Super 8 works on several levels - as a childhood fantasy, as a monster movie, as a coming-of-age drama, as comedy, and as an adventure. The train derailment sequence early on is one of the most breathtaking, memorably impressive scenes of peril I've seen in recent memory. Scenes like that make this distinctly a J.J. Abrams movie, rather than just a Spielberg knock-off. The thrill-a-minute pacing and emotionally textured score by the invaluable Michael Giacchino are also uniquely Abrams.
Though it delivers on almost every level, there are a couple of nagging imperfections with the movie. The big reveal of the creature/alien/monster (I won't say what it is) is a tad underwhelming, if only because you feel like you've seen it before. The last third hits all the marks but feels kind of rushed. As a result, it lacks the emotional firepower at the end that it should have, and leaves the audience happy but wanting just a bit more. This is most evident in the father-son reconciliation, which although technically there, lacks that emotional oomph.
Still, given how entertaining Super 8 is, this feels like nitpicking. Because the movie calls to mind certified classics like Close Encounters, Jaws, and E.T., and is definitely intended to fit that mold, you can't help but make the comparison. That does Super 8 a disservice. It is its own thing, and if the biggest knock you can make against it is that it isn't as good as E.T. - one of the greatest movies ever made, mind you - then, big whoop. I'll take it.
Super 8 is the epitome of what summer blockbusters should be. It is endlessly fun and entertaining, keeps you guessing until the end (a rarity these days), and doesn't overstay its welcome, running under 2 hours. Another plus? It's even better the second time - always a good sign. I'll be watching this one again and again once it hits DVD, if only, as my buddy Wally Hasselbring put it, to feel like I'm twelve and riding bikes again. What a great time in life. What a great movie.