Super 8 (2011) Movie Review

In a day and age where movie trailers (not to mention all those clips) give away everything including the kitchen sink and the family dog in hopes you’ll honor it with the purchase of a movie ticket (or, for you family types out there, movie tickets), J.J. Abrams’ “Super 8” chose to buck the trend and showed off as little as possible. Mystery (or super duper mystery) was the name of the game. The hope, of course, is to entice you enough to make you want to pay to see it. It’s not until this week, on the film’s opening week, that the studio even revealed a glimpse of its sci-fi monster. Is it a case of too little, too late? A P.R. machine that was too clever for its own good? Or proof that Abrams is, indeed, a marketing genius operating on a level far above us mere mortals? The film’s opening weekend box office will tell the tale, but until then, a (mostly) proper movie review below.

Set in 1979, “Super 8” opens with young Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) at his mother’s wake, where his father, town deputy Jackson (“Friday Night Lights'” Kyle Chandler) attempts to cope with his wife’s recent passing, and failing miserably. But life goes on, and months later, Joe and his buddies, including bossy filmmaker-in-training Charles (Riley Griffiths, standing in for a teen J.J. Abrams, perhaps?) are intent on finishing Charles’ latest zombie opus. They recruit a new leading lady in the fetching Alice, who along with her father Louis (Ron Eldard) share a tragic history with the Lambs. Elle Fanning, as you may have guessed, is the younger sister of Dakota, and like big sister, teenager Elle is one of those born-and-bred-in-Hollywood old souls who could probably play a 30-year old by the time she was 10.

When the boys shoot on location at a bus stop near town, they become witness to the now-famous train derailment, an “accident” that is anything but. Soon, the Air Force, led by a tight-lipped Nelec (Noah Emmerich) arrives to clean up the mess, spinning a cover story that Deputy Jackson (who quickly finds himself the town’s new put-upon Sheriff) doesn’t buy. The kids, though, definitely know better, especially Joe, who had absconded from the derailment with a precious piece of evidence — a cube-like object with some very strange properties. Soon, a beastly creature is seen among the shadows of town, frying local electronics, chasing away pets, and, eventually, moving onto the townspeople. Something, it seems, was unleashed during the train derailment, and it’s hungry. And mad. And nothing is harder to control than a hungry and pissed off beast.

“Super 8” was produced by Steven Spielberg, and you can almost imagine Abrams pounding out the script on a computer with “E.T.” or another Spielberg ’70s-’80s teen-centric classic blaring on in the background. “Super 8” is Abrams’ first film after the success of the “Star Trek” reboot, and it’s certainly a much smaller, more intimate affair. The time period doesn’t really figure too much into the movie other than as an homage to his producer, though there are a couple of cute gags here and there, like the novel appearance of a portable walkman, which one character refers to as a “slippery slope”. Those crazy kids and their crazy contraptions. Get off my lawn! Ahem. Noah Emmerich is the face of the U.S. Government cover up, but other than that the soldiers mostly run around in the background without a whole lot of personality, which is actually another staple of Spielberg sci-fi.

With a film like this, it’s all up to the kids to carry the day, and young Joel Courtney does a fine enough job. He’s thoughtful and moody, but at the same time still a free-spirited kid. Of course, the really big star will be Elle Fanning, who seems to be following very closely in big sis Dakota’s footsteps. The elder Fanning also made a pretty huge splash in Spielberg’s sci-fi alien invasion flick “War of the Worlds”. The little Fanning has more to do here, as her character shows a wide range of emotions throughout the movie. Fanning pretty much dominates every scene she’s in, and it’s probably all Courtney can do to hang on, as the two share quite a bit of time together onscreen. The adults hold their own, though are far from spectacular. Kyle Chandler is his “Friday Night Lights” dad, except this time he has a gun, and Ron Eldard, sporting mischievous mutton chops, is sympathetic as a man who knows he’s no good and really, really wants to change, but just can’t seem to find the strength to make it happen.

“Super 8” will no doubt appeal to anyone who grew up loving Spielberg’s movies about regular, renegade kids thriving amidst extraordinary situations. I know I’ve said it a couple of times already, and you’ll hear more about it in other reviews, but it really is true: Abrams has made a movie that, if you were to remove his name from the credits, could have existed 20 years ago as a Spielberg-directed movie. It really is that much of a nostalgic homage. Unfortunately, if you’re expecting a more contemporary monster movie, you may be a bit disappointed. The film is rated PG-13, so gore is not the name of the game here. (One character does drop the F-bomb once.) And the movie is never really all that scary, with the monster mostly attacking off-screen until the inevitable Big Reveal towards the end. Other than that, “Super 8” achieves pretty much everything it sets out to do, and box office success or not, Abrams can say he did what he wanted, his way.

J.J. Abrams (director) / J.J. Abrams (screenplay)
CAST: Joel Courtney … Joe Lamb
Elle Fanning … Alice Dainard
Kyle Chandler … Jackson Lamb
Ron Eldard … Louis Dainard
Noah Emmerich … Nelec
Amanda Michalka … Jen Kaznyk
Ryan Lee … Cary
Zach Mills … Preston
Riley Griffiths … Charles
Gabriel Basso … Martin

Buy Super 8 on DVD