Super 8 is one of those films that will last. It’s destined to rank with the likes of Stand by Me, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and E.T. Yes, it’s an alien film, a monster movie, but what separates it from its cousin Cloverfield is heart. It’s a touching film about the end of childhood, grasping onto the tail end of innocence and dreams, grappling with loss while discovering first love. J.J. Abrams, the clear heir to the Spielberg legacy, never just tells a story. It was never just about the spies in Alias, the scares in Fringe, or the crash in Lost. What Abrams does best is to depict characters with the plots, outrageous and effects-laden as they may be, as a backdrop. He populates this film with a diverse, memorable group of characters portrayed by a pitch-perfect cast. This was largely an unknown cast, with no major stars, though most of the kids demonstrate potential, particularly Joel Courtney and Elle Fanning.
Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) and his father Deputy Jackson Lamb (Kyle Chandler) are recovering from the loss of Joe’s mother. They’ve never really been close, and their small family is coming apart at the seams. Joe’s dream is to work as a special effects artist in a film, and he spends his time making models and helping his best friend Charles (Riley Griffiths) to make a zombie film for an amateur film festival. They, along with their small group of friends–each teeming with his own set of adolescent quirks which they all play off of, demonstrating some excellent chemistry–invite Alice to help, as adding a wife for the main character in their film would give it more emotion. As they’re filming a key scene at a train station (for added “production value”), the oncoming trail derails, due to a truck swerving onto the tracks. This crash is followed closely by the military, and the driver of the truck warns them to keep their mouths shut about what they’ve seen, and to run. In the following days, strange things begin happening throughout the fictional town of Lillian, OH (not far away from where I live–they showed a map) and it seems that the train was carrying something that was only too happy to seize to opportunity to escape. There’s a nice metanarrative behind the kids’ film, commenting on what Abrams and Spielberg (and many other directors) do in their best films. They infuse a childlike wonder into their movies, compelling us forward not simply with explosions, sex, and gore, but with a story, with heart. The narrative is a series of emotional moments woven together with an exciting plot. As I watched, I thought, this really isn’t an alien movie. Yes, there in an alien, but it’s much more than that. It’s about kids pursuing their dreams, unfettered by the prejudices of their jaded parents. It’s about the excitement of first love, sitting and talking late into the night and connecting with someone else. It’s about having fun while on the cusp of growing up. It’s a coming of age story that tugs at the heart while delivering some blockbuster-worthy punches. It never felt too heavy in any way. When the action gets too intense, Abrams counters effectively with comic relief–often in the form of a pyromanic talking about his homemade M80s, or even the nuances of a well-timed beat. Abrams scored with his group of child actors. They had great chemistry between them all, particularly the boys, as Elle Fanning plays the interloper, though she holds her own well. Each of the boys has a few moments to shine and connect with the audience. They bicker between themselves as though they’ve known each other since kindergarten. Even Joel Courtney, the leading man, didn’t seem like he was trying to outshine everyone else with heroics. He simply follows his heart throughout, come what may. This was an incredible film with memorable characters on the precipice of adolescence, dealing with issues between friends, family, tension between the members of the town, loss of life, mystery, the bliss of dreams pursued, and discovering romantic feelings for the first time. And, oh yeah, it’s an alien movie, too. The best films are those which, after the explosions fade, the smoke clears, and the monster has lumbered off into the distance, exude an excess of heart. This is one of those films.
5 out of 5 stars