Joe Lamb’s mother has died, and a locket with her image is the last vestige of her presence. Emotionally adrift from his disconnected father, Joe spends his time with his buddies working on the latest film idea of wannabe director, Charles. While shooting the film, Joe is dumbstruck by recent addition Alice Dainard, problematic since their fathers have a messy history. When the kids witness an accident involving a train carrying the U.S. Air Force’s top-secret cargo, they are thrust further into the messy world of adulthood.
Films completely composed of child actors are fertile ground for criticism, yet this troop of vibrant adolescents hit their marks with a remarkable grace. They achieve a convincing repartee, bouncing off each other like caffeinated atoms so you never doubt their relationships. These kids aren’t complete saints either, but exemplify the yin and yang of all children, with charming firebug Cary earning quite a few laughs and Joe and Alice’s emotional journey carrying the film’s bulk. They also don’t feel slotted into pre-determined archetypes like the 80’s coming of age stories Super 8 personifies, even allowing the typical “fat kid” character, Charles, to be more than a comic relief coward (The Goonies, The Monster Squad) – he’s actually the director and leader of the group.
The process of making Charles’ latest film, The Case, is a love letter to filmmaking. For this filmmaking reviewer in particular, as the boys secure their equipment first before securing their lives, or as they scramble to get the perfect shot before it disappears, Super 8 taps into that love, chaos, and creativity of filmmaking in a way that will allow everyone a taste of that process (though with less of the blood, sweat and tears). The overall impact leaves you wanting to be that age again.
When the film isn’t building up the relationship dynamics between its characters, it regularly teases at what the Air Force was transporting when the train went kablooey. Mysterious goings on and abrupt snatchings of police officers and maintenance workers hew to the Spielberg school of “hide the monster, scare them with what it leaves in its wake.” The gradual reveals of the Air Force’s secret, and the full story behind the animosity between Joe and Alice’s fathers, offer a two-pronged intrigue that keeps you captivated.
I’ve also never been so impressed with a film’s range of special effects. The train accident featured in the trailer was a terrifying concoction of CGI and practical effects, tying me up in knots as the kids ran for their lives. Considering how Spielberg (who produced Super 8) blended the two formats to craft such tension in War of the Worlds, it’s good to see Abrams taking some notes from his book.
Super 8 is an amazing film, but, there is some bad news: it forcefully reminds us of the film’s datedness with awkward lines such as, “No one can do one day shipping!” and “People walking around with personal music devices, that will be the day!” (paraphrased). If the cars, clothes, background posters of late 70’s films, and period music weren’t enough to clue you in that this isn’t set in the present, here’s a stilted package for you. Since this is a Spielberg produced film, it should come as no surprise that POSSIBLE MINOR SPOILER there’s a scene that’s intended to emotionally connect the “monster” to the humans, but fails abysmally (though, at least Cary reflects the incredulous moment when he follows it with the reply, “What?!”). MINOR SPOILER OVER As the film moves away from the characters and dives into the Air Force’s grand secret, the film loses a lot of the emotional connection with the audience, leading to a rough landing for the film’s narrative.
Finally, Mr. Abrams, your lens flare usage has been revoked. You have shots where there are no light sources for your lens flare effect, yet it still occupies 1/4 of your screen. Worse still, some of them don’t even look like lens flares, just a bunch of blue lines an eight year old drew across the frame. You know we hated it in Star Trek, why not weigh our criticism and realize you’re destroying your image with that crap?* You could hear an audible groan when they cropped up during every night sequence. Please, you’re a great director, quit it.
Alternating between hilarious, touching, terrifying, and scares that will have you accidentally punching someone in the face (maybe even yourself), this is not just a re-hashing of E.T. Thematically it has some similarities, but Super 8 is its own beast – a more mature rendition of its forbear.
There’s still about three months of summer left and hopefully there will be some surprises with upcoming film releases, but Super 8 could be the best film of the season. It’s summer blockbuster at its best, able to nail the seemingly impossible** balance between story and spectacle. See this, multiple times, with friends.
*Same thing goes for Christopher Nolan in the Batman films. Bale’s smoker’s voice for Batman has been a regular punching bag for comedians, yet Nolan still stuck with its ridiculousness for the sequel. Not that I assume internet blather is automatically deserving of everyone’s time and consideration, but when you have a strong, clear, outcry against some of your choices, sheer stubborness seems the only reason to stay the course.
**for most summer blockbuster directors