By Brian Hall
Writer/Director J.J. Abrams’ “Super 8” feels like a lost film discovered in a time capsule recovered from the offices of Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment. Like the classic 80’s films produced under that banner – E.T., The Goonies and Gremlins to name a few – it features a vibrant band of kids who discover something magical amidst the mundane hiding out in their idyllic suburban landscape. But as much as the Bearded One’s fingerprints are all over this film, this is absolutely a J.J. Abrams production. And a darn good one at that.
Set in small-town Ohio, 1979, the film opens with Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) reeling from the recent passing of his mother and struggling to co-exist with his humorless, Deputy Sheriff father (Kyle Chandler.) Their loss creates a chasm between them that Joe escapes by helping his goofy friends film a homemade, super 8 zombie movie. While filming one night at the train tracks, a freak accident derails a freight train in a spectacular display of destruction and releases a mysterious figure onto the unsuspecting town. Before the children even have time to examine the wreckage, faceless government agents are cleaning up the scene and the children hightail it out. They vow to keep their presence at the crash a secret, unaware that one of the biggest clues as to what happened that night has been burned into their dailies.
Abrams appears completely at ease here taking the Amblin aesthetic – neglectful fathers, kids racing around on bicycles, children looking wistfully into an illuminated night sky – and comfortably adds his own recognizable brand of mystery, punchy wit, and heart-string tuggery. Also in keeping with Abrams tradition, where this movie really shines is its characters. In fact, it’s fair to say this isn’t so much a monster movie with kids in it but rather a coming-of-age story that happens to have a monster in it. All the children’s performances here are strong with the adorably innocent chemistry between Elle Fanning and Courtney standing out in particular.
However the film is not without its flaws. The script feels about a draft away from really sticking its landing. Story pacing stumbles a bit early on and a few character moments feel more forced than earned, robbing them of reaching genuinely satisfying outcomes. What keeps these weaker moments from sinking the boat is that the film is so darn earnest and has charm to spare. It simply wants to take you on an adventure like movies used to and it’s that spirit that helps to absorb the bumps in the road, allowing us to enjoy the journey in spite of them.
So this isn’t the second coming of E.T., but honestly, what could be? “Super 8” is still praiseworthy because it’s a film that successfully fills a void that’s been noticeably vacant in cinemas for far too long. It’s an adventure film for young and old that poses magical elements against a backdrop recognizable enough to be your own backyard, characters we spend enough time with to genuinely care about, and an adventure the 12-year-old in all of us wishes they could be a part of. You know, like all those amazing Amblin films we grew up with.
Apparently, every now and then, they do still make ’em like they used to.