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Super 8 -- A Movie Review
Super 8 (3 & a half stars out of 5)
Back in the 80s, Steven Spielberg mastered a type of family-friendly, character-oriented sci-fi film which was imitated by many others at the time. Movies like ET, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Goonies and Poltergeist were hallmarks of an innocent yet artful filmmaking style. You can say “They don’t make ‘em like that anymore” but you’d be wrong, because Super 8 is a nostalgic throwback to a type of earnest, heartfelt sci-fi movie that seemed extinct in the 21st Century until now.
Director J.J. Abrams (The mastermind behind Lost and Alias, as well the cinematic remakes of Star Trek and Mission Impossible) copies the formula of Spielberg (Who produced the film) which focuses on families and particularly on children as the centerpiece of the greater story. Our young cast here could have stepped right out of Diary of a Wimpy Kid but in a sci-fi setting. They may not ride bikes through the air like in ET but our pre-teen protagonists get around, as they get to the heart of this monster mystery.
Our main protagonist is 12-year-old Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) who has recently lost his mother to a tragic subplot (Which seems a bit intrusive to the main story), and is having trouble relating to his depressed father Jack (Kyle Chandler) who can’t juggle his duties as a single parent with his job as the town’s deputy Sheriff. Joe tries to keep his spirits up by joining his bossy best friend Charles (Reilly Griffith) in making an amateur film to win a student film festival. Along with three others buddies (A trio of clichés—the dumb kid, the smart kid, and the crazy kid who carries fireworks with him and likes to blow things up) they make a zombie film with their Super 8 camera, assisted by an older girl Alice (Ellie Fanning) who Joe has a major crush on. They sneak out at night to do some late shooting at the train depot, and arrive just in time to see the military transport train passing by. They watch as a truck crashes deliberately into the train, which leads to the best derailment scene since The Fugitive. The kids accidently film something escaping from the train wreckage.
As with any good monster-on-the-loose film, the military shows up to hunt the beast. And movie buffs won’t be surprised to know that covering the whole thing up is of equally high priority to them as recapturing what has escaped. That’s what the military does in sci-fi films.
Strange things start happening and all the town dogs flee for the hills as soon as they get a whiff of trouble, but the two legged locals take a bit longer to put the pieces together. People begin to vanish, as do various machine parts. The power begins to fail. Paranoid locals fear a Russian Invasion. The town adults—led by Deputy Jack after the Sheriff goes missing—are befuddled, but never fear, because our Scooby Doo gang of intrepid junior high heroes are on the case.
There is an innocent and touching young romance between Joe and Alice, including an oddly erotic scene where he makes her up to be a zombie. However, the unnecessary subplot about the unpleasant past between Joe’s deputy dad and Alice’s screw-up father Louis (Ron Eldard) is a big distraction and never fully explained. The youngsters don’t need a Romeo and Juliet obstacle to complicate their budding romance when there is a monster destroying the town.
There is a laudable theme running throughout the film about judging people (or monsters) without walking a mile in their shoes, because even the worst of us is more than just a monster. Abrams earlier monster movie Cloverfield focused more of the jeopardy of the characters but didn’t have any subtext. This film isn’t quite as epic as Cloverfield but the effects are good and the train wreck scene is a visual circus of chaos.
Super 8 is not a perfect film but it brings back nostalgic memories of a time when sci-fi movies had a type of heart and magic which went beyond just the big special effects or pyrotechnics, and the human element was more important than the over-the-top action. Spielberg understood that. I hope Michael Bey is watching.