Writer/director J.J. Abrams sets out to make his version of a classic Steven Spielberg film in Super 8. Those who expected a Cloverfield sequel (which it thankfully isn’t) may be disappointed. What we get instead is a little bit War of the Worlds, a little bit Close Encounters of the Third Kind, a little bit Jaws, and a whole lot of E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial – all filtered through J.J. Abrams lens-flare-filtered frame.
The story centers around a group of kids in a small Ohio town during the summer of 1979. In true Speilbergian fashion we get single parents, teasing shots of the film’s monster, and many, many reasons to be wary of the United States Government.
The film begins with a son (Joel Courtney) dealing with the tragic death of his mother. After a short jump ahead we see a snapshot of Joe’s (Courtney) life including his uneasy relationship to his father (Kyle Chandler), the town’s deputy sheriff, and time spent working with his friends to create an 8mm film.
It’s the movie making that puts Joe, Charles (Riley Griffiths), Martin (Gabriel Basso), and Cary (Ryan Lee), along with (Elle Fanning), the daughter of the man (Ron Eldard) Joe’s father holds responsible for his wife’s death, far outside town when a train is derailed and a monster escapes.
I’m going to give credit to Abrams for getting the best of each of his young actors. And I appreciated how the boys treated each like actual friends would – zingers and all. You can argue the parent/relationships between Joe & Jackson (Chandler), and Alice (Fanning) & Louis (Eldard) could have been further developed, but we’re given enough to understand who each of these characters are how they relate (or fail to relate) to each other.
Although the early monster attacks around the town are a little too disconnected to the kids’ storyline, Abrams does a good job building the tension without revealing too much about his monster too soon. As to the reveal of the creature… all I can say is it bears a striking resemblance to a character from Star Wars Episode III.
Abrams also does a good job for most of the film in balancing the rising tension of the situation with the more character-driven scenes. He may not be Spielberg, but who is? The film does stumble a bit in its third act as Abrams goes a little too crazy with the CGI. Other than the massive train sequence that opens the film (where every single car of the train explodes, pelting scrambling kids with shrapnel that doesn’t even scratch one of them), the film doesn’t let itself fall down that particular rabbit hole until the final act.
The choice of the 8mm camera and the scenes involving the kids making their film gives Super 8 some of its best moments. (Make sure you stay to see the full film in the closing credits.) Personally, I would have liked the footage of the night of the trainwreck to be a little more important to the story, and revealed far earlier, but what we’re given is still enough to push the characters forward to the film’s climax.
All said, Super 8 is almost exactly what I expected going in. It’s better than something like Flight of the Navigator or The Monster Squad, but far removed from Spielberg’s best. Those expecting something as memorable as E.T. are bound to be disappointed, but if you keep your expectations in check and expect nothing more than a darn good kid’s monster movie, with strong dramatic acting throughout, you should be fine.