Written & Directed by: J.J. Abrams
Starring: Joel Courtney, Elle Fanning, Ryan Lee, Riley Griffiths, Kyle Chandler, Noah Emmerich
Rated: PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi action and violence, language, and some drug use
“Super 8” is a throwback of a film, a nostalgic flick in the best sense. Written and directed by J.J. Abrams, it’s got a lot of lens flare and a bit too much shaky cam, but it also has a thoroughly well-crafted story that is more about the nature of love and loss and friendship than it is about aliens.
The kids at the center of the film are a gang of boys who love making monster movies on a Super 8 camera. The young director, Charles (Riley Griffiths), has persuaded the very pretty Alice (Elle Fanning) to join their crew for a movie he hopes to submit to a local film competition for kids. While they group are filming, having snuck out at night to shoot in a local train station, they witness an enormous disaster as a passing train hits a pickup truck and derails.
Even amid the explosions and chaos, it’s clear to the terrified kids that something is very wrong, and soon strange things start happening in their little town. Dogs run away, lots of equipment is going missing, and soon people are going missing too. The Air Force rolls in and assures everyone that they’re just there to clean up the wreckage of their train, but they are suspiciously closed-mouthed about what was on it.
The mystery of what is going on and what was on the train is in many ways secondary to the heart of the film, which is the process of one of the gang, Joe (Joel Courtney), coming to terms with the loss of his mother. Her death happens shortly before the film opens, and is handled with a solemnity we don’t often see anymore when people die in films: a factory’s “days since our last accident” sign being reset to “1,” a young boy in a dark suit sitting on a front-yard swingset and looking at a locket while the adults inside talk about him in hushed tones.
The film is full of familiar tropes and cinematic shorthand, but these things became cliches because they work. “Super 8” is set in the summer of 1979 and shot like it was made in the early 80s, and for those of us who grew up watching movies like this back then, it’s like walking into the diner where you hung out with your friends decades ago and finding it virtually unchanged. “Super 8” has the advantage of a huge budget and modern special effects, but it wisely uses them sparingly. This is a film about people, and every detail matters. The young actors, many of them first-timers, are spot-on, and while most of the film’s characters are very simple, none of the actors sleepwalk through their roles. The whole movie fits together like clockwork, and while the emotional notes may not work for everyone, the sheer craft of the film is impressive.
“Super 8” is a movie for folks nostalgic for the movies of a couple decades ago, for those who like stories about a band of kids having an adventure and learning important things about life and about themselves in the process. Yes, it’s an old genre, but when these movies work, they really work. “Super 8” works.