J.J. Abrams’ Super 8 is bold, confident entertainment that attempts to recreate the success of early Steven Spielberg. Like Close Encounters of the Third Kind and ET, the suburban setting exudes both familiarity and danger. The story includes family drama, science-fiction, and a touching love story. Abrams does not usurp the movies that inspire him, but then again, how could he? Spielberg was innovating back then, and Abrams’ sense of nostalgia hinders the material from feeling fresh. Unfair comparisons notwithstanding, Super 8 is brimming with enough thrills and heart to make us forget its lack of movie magic.
Lillian is the sort of town where everyone knows everyone and nothing strange ever happens. The town is not, however, immune to tragedy. Joe (Joel Courtney) and his father (Kyle Chandler) know this all too well, as Joe’s mother died in an accident. Her death does not stop Joe and his friend Charles (Riley Griffiths) from their work on a zombie movie. One night, Charles recruits Alice (Elle Fanning) to be his hero’s love interest, and with a super 8 camera in tow, they shoot at a nearby train station. Charles uses a passing locomotive to give his film big-budget production values. But Joe notices something alarming about the train, and in the first of many intense sequences, it crashes in spectacular fashion. The following day, the Air Force descends on Lillian in search of top-secret cargo. Joe and his friends must uncover the train’s secret before it’s too late.
A passion for film is the driving force behind many early scenes, and thanks to Riley Griffiths’ terrific performance, it easy to share his character’s dedication. Setting the movie in 1979 is crucial to the zombie movie subplot, Kids back then were more likely to make their own fun, and the development of Charles’ film is an important plot. Joe and the others initially follow the director because he’s the most exciting part of Lillian. In a clever reversal, they later follow him because his film is the only thing that still makes sense. These careful twists are what Abrams does best. He’s a patient director, one who recognizes early details are necessary for a later payoff. Star Trek and even Mission: Impossible III demonstrate how Abrams develops suspense laterally, and as with his previous work, there are parts in Super 8 where we must pause to think how the action got so involving.
The contents of the train are what ultimately pique audience interest, and up to one crucial scene, Abrams’ restraint is admirable. The plucky kids react differently than the wearier adults; whereas Joe and the others have the requisite innocence to accept weird events, adults must fall victim to sudden attacks (in one of many nostalgic moments, the townsfolk believe the Soviets are responsible). Never quite shown in full, Abrams’ restraint in revealing the cargo is reminiscent of Jaws. The plotting falters, unfortunately, at a critical moment where a character practically vomits exposition, so there’s no surprise when Joe finally encounters the cargo. Excessive exposition quashes any sense of wonder, which is how Super 8 falls short of its inspiration. Still, Abrams knows how to construct an action sequence. An assault on a bus is as good as Jurassic Park’s T-Rex sequence, and Joe’s father stages a pitch-perfect rebellion against the Air Force.
Super 8 would not work without strong performers. Abrams’ cast of unknowns and character actors outshine the movie’s big surprises. Anyone familiar with Friday Night Lights knows how Chandler’s naturalistic acting adds quiet authority. As leader of the military, Noah Emmerich hones the quiet menace that defines his career. Yet the kids are the stars of the film, and they’re developed with care and empathy. Of the gang, Joe and Alice are the most captivating. Fanning has the note-perfect combination of compassion and vulnerability, and as Joe, Joel Courtney never overstates his character’s deep reserves of emotion.
Earlier this week, Twilight: Eclipse swept the MTV Movie awards. It’s depressing to think about; in my review of New Moon, I wrote that Edward and Bella are melancholy husks who are incapable of joy. Then a movie like Super 8 comes along, and I’m reminded Hollywood still knows its way around youthful romance. When Joe finally tells Alice how he really feels, I felt pleasant lump in my throat. I suspect he will do the same for you, too.