- Rated PG-13
- Buy the BD
All photos © Paramount Pictures
Reviewed by David Medsker
.J. Abrams is fond of teasing the audience, offering them tiny glimpses of his latest project without providing enough context for anyone to get a jump on the plot. In the case of his latest film, “Super 8,” he may have been skimpy with the details on the story, but ultimately he was hiding something far bigger: the fact that he just made a better Spielberg summer blockbuster than Spielberg himself has made in almost 20 years.
In 1979, in the small town of Lillian, OH, Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) and his friends spend their summer days helping their friend and aspiring filmmaker Charles (Riley Griffiths) finish a zombie film that he plans to enter in a competition. One night they sneak out to shoot a scene at an out-of-town train station and a train comes barreling through, only for it to be hit head-on by a truck, causing a massive derailment, which Charles captures on film. The boys, along with new recruit Alice (Elle Fanning), escape before the military can secure the area and swear themselves to secrecy, but the town is immediately beset with blackouts, vandalism, and disappearances. Enter the military, who tell Joe’s father, Deputy Sheriff Jack Lamb (Kyle Chandler), that everything is fine despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. When Charles gets his film of the train accident three days later, the gang finally gets an idea of what they’re up against.
Nostalgia is a powerful and at times dangerous thing when it comes to moviemaking, but Abrams is wise not to let it take the wheel. His take on the period is affectionate to be sure, but he never forgets that the story isn’t about the time period – it’s merely set there. Abrams also keeps the focus on the kids, but the two main parental characters, Chandler and Ron Eldard, who plays Alice’s father, have a surprising amount of depth as well. Perhaps the greatest trick that Abrams pulls with his story is that in the end, it’s hardly about the big baddie at all. It’s about making the best of a bad situation, a situation that, for a few days, involves a gigantic, angry alien.
The boys all turn in solid work, particularly Courtney as the wounded Joe, but Elle Fanning owns this movie. Her first scene in Charles’ film is stunning, and she does a spot-on zombie impression later, yet both scenes pale in comparison to the scene in Joe’s bedroom. Abrams’ script does get a bit too chatty, with several characters talking over each other, but he nails the conversational vibe of the period. The action set pieces, meanwhile, are breathtaking. The train scene is one for the ages, and the bit in the bus is this generation’s “Jurassic Park” moment. (It will come to the surprise of no one that Steven Spielberg is the movie’s executive producer.) The ending is a tad abrupt – a quick ‘day after’ scene would have been nice – but the credits offer an amusing send-off.
“Super 8” is definitely a throwback, but unlike “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,” it knows what time it is, and delivers an experience that combines the refined nature of the golden age blockbusters with the visceral punch of modern-day action films. That is about as ‘best of both worlds’ as one could ask for.