Movie Number– 75
Title– Super 8 (2011)
Running Time– 112 minutes (“PG-13”)
Director– J.J. Abrams
Writer– J.J. Abrams
Starring– Joel Courtney, Elle Fanning, Riley Griffiths, Kyle Chandler, & Ron Eldard
(Written for Inside Pulse – Movies)
J.J. Abrams is no stranger when it comes to large, multi-million dollar blockbusters, and has found success as a writer (the Lost television series, and underrated horror/thriller Joy Ride), director (Stark Trek), and producer (Cloverfield). He is known for creative marketing techniques – like those seen for Cloverfield – that keep the audience in the dark about what to expect when he or she walks into the theatre. Super 8 follows suit, and as the lights dim, you aren’t sure if you’re about to watch a horror film, a family movie, some science fiction fare, or something else entirely.
Rest assured, what follows, whatever genre it may be, is a summer thrill ride worth taking.
Joe Lamb’s (Joel Courtney) whole life crumbles around him when his mother dies in a factory accident. He is left to face the world with only his father (Kyle Chandler), the town deputy, and his best friends. Four months after the tragic incident at the factory, Charles (Riley Griffiths) is ready to continue filming his George A. Romero-inspired zombie flick, and has enlisted the help of the local cutie Alice Dainard (Elle Fanning) to play in the movie. The group meets up at a train station with plans to film on Charles’ Super 8 camcorder. The midnight meeting goes terribly wrong, though, when a truck driver crashes head-on into a passing train. When the United States Air Force shows up to this small, Ohio town, the boys know that this is no ordinary train accident.
Super 8 does a lot right, and the first is the casting. Joel Courtney and Elle Fanning steal the show with wonderfully mature performances. Courtney never misses a beat in his character’s progression from the quiet, broken-hearted follower, to the brave, romantic leader, and he even overcomes the shallowly written relationship between he and his father. Fanning delivers a performance that rivals actresses twice, even three times her age, and is perfectly cast alongside Courtney. One of the most effective and memorable scenes in the film is one without any of the crazy special effects that make up the other 90% of the movie, and instead relies on the acting chops of these two lead characters. The scene – where the two watch an old home video of Joe and his mother – nearly brought me to tears, which isn’t what I expect when entering the theatre for a summer blockbuster.
The supporting cast rarely lives up to the performances by Courtney and Fanning, but there are some standouts worth noting. Former 7th Heaven star, David Gallagher, is hysterical as a film shop stoner looking to get laid. His character, like a lot of others, could have been more fleshed out, but Gallagher does a great job with what he is given. Glynn Turman (Gremlins, Burlesque) plays an even smaller, but more critical role as Dr. Woodward, and handles his odd scenes masterfully. Though it isn’t his fault – J.J. Abrams’ writing is to blame – Kyle Chandler, playing Joe’s father, is shallow, and predictable. In fact, Ron Eldard (playing Alice’s father) follows an almost identical story arc as Chandler, and the viewer will see the climax coming from the introduction of these two characters.
The father’s sub-plot may be weak and predictable, but the special effects work is anything but. It’s refreshing to see CGI work that genuinely adds to the viewer’s experience instead of taking him or her out of it, which can happen a lot nowadays. Films like Super 8 further the gap between CGI masters and CGI frauds in the best way possible. The train crash looks great, but the scenes that appear later in the film are truly awe-inspiring, and you feel like you’re in the middle of this small town, running right on the heels of the little boys as they try to do the right thing. The special effects have no missteps, and Super 8 gives us some of the strongest CGI work I’ve seen in a long time.
It isn’t fair, or accurate, to say that Super 8 doesn’t take itself seriously because it does. What is great, though, is that it has an excellent sense of humor about it. The dialogue between the middle school-aged boys is spot-on, and reminds me of my days during those awkward years. Even in the face of the most horrific sights the boys will ever see, they are still mocking each other, keeping it fun for the viewer at all times. The humor fades late in the film as the forced sub-plots wrap up, but it picks right back up during the credits, when the audience gets to see the finished zombie film the boys created. Super 8 could have benefitted from Abrams allowing the humor to continue through the entire third act, but instead, the finale is the weakest part of the movie.
Comparisons to The Goonies and E.T. are impossible to avoid: Super 8 feels like a modern take on those stories thanks to a similar spirit, and atmosphere. Though it won’t be held in as high regard as either of those two films in thirty years, Super 8 still has a charm, and sense of humor – not to mention soundtrack – that are rarely seen today.
If nothing else, Super 8 is a perfect example of a movie that thrives in a theatrical setting. The explosions are loud, the visuals big, and the story epic. For someone who was never able to see The Goonies or E.T. in movie theatres, Super 8 is the next best thing. Though it isn’t a perfect film, Super 8 is excellent fodder for that summer (blockbuster) campfire.
Branden has been a film fan since he was young, roaming the halls of Blockbuster Video, trying to find the grossest, scariest looking VHS covers to rent and watch alone in the basement. It wasn’t until recently, though, that Branden started seeking out the classics of cinema, and began to develop his true passion for the art form. Branden approaches each film with the unique perspective of having studied the art from the inside, having both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in acting. He has been a film critic since 2010, and has previously written for Inside Pulse Movies, We Love Cult, and Diehard Gamefan. His biggest achievement as a film critic, to date, has been founding Cinefessions and turning it from a personal blog to a true film website, housing hundreds of film and television reviews, and dozens of podcasts.