‘Super 8′ review: Super indeed
‘Super 8’ shows just how important storytelling is
In an era inundated with myopic plots, lackluster acting and deleterious special effects, it’s truly breathtaking to finally watch a movie that emphasizes story over action, creation over destruction. For those who would rather engage with characters on a visceral level than a superficial one, “Super 8” provides a nostalgia-inducing trip through the bittersweet annals of growing up and becoming a part of this world.
While “Super 8” was directed by J.J. Abrams (“Lost,” “Star Trek”), the heavy influences from master storyteller Steven Spielberg (who was a producer for “Super 8,” and also reviewed the script) are more than blaringly apparent. But instead of coming off as a soulless rip-off, “Super 8” is rather a carefully sculpted homage to the man who showed us that special effects and nonstop action sequences can — and should — take backseat to character development and engaging storytelling.
And similar to Spielberg’s “E.T. The Extra-Terrestial” and “Back to the Future,” a touch of fantasy is weaved into “Super 8,” but the emphasis is placed on expressing the child-like wonder and confusion that are part and parcel to being an adolescent trying to belong.
This time around, the youngsters are a group of aspiring filmmakers from a small steel town in Ohio who, in 1979, set out to shoot a zombie flick. The main character in Abrams’s film is not director Charles (Riley Griffiths), but his best friend, Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney), who serves as makeup artist on “The Case.” Joe’s mother was recently killed in an accident at the steel mill, a loss that shadows both the boy’s relationship with his father (Kyle Chandler), a sheriff’s deputy, and with Alice Dainard (Elle Fanning), whose father (Ron Eldard) seems to have had something to do with the death.
Alice joins the cast of “The Case,” setting in motion Joe’s crush on her and staging some incredible moments in the movie, scenes in which Fanning, and her character, demonstrate some impressive acting chops. The rest of the cast is nearly as good. If you didn’t know any better, you would think they had been best friends from the womb. And watching them run around town on their bikes (and in some sweet muscle cars) is an absolute pleasure.
But the plot must move forward. While engaging in some amateur filmmaking, the crew inadvertently becomes privy to some strange stuff. A train derails in spectacular fashion after crashing head-on into a truck. Almost immediately thereafter, a bunch of sinister military guys show up. Cars and all matter of things start cascading through the air. Dogs go missing, as do people. Something dangerous lurks in the darkness. And while the crew of “The Case” is left shaken after the incident, they continue filming because, after all, what filmmaker would forgo such excellent “production value,” a term favored by Charles.
A aura of mystery, a very Spielberg-esque vibe, courses through the majority of the film. But Abrams expertly keeps us in the dark until the last possible moment. And his version of 1979 is probably more like 1979 than the real 1979, which was hardly a time of innocence. (Oh, the power of nostalgia.)
In the homestretch, big battles are fought, lessons are learned, the elusive monster is revealed and other loose ends are tied up. It’s a bit perfunctory, even predictable. But such is the way of the genre.
One of the best surprises Abrams presents is making Joe the make-up artist, not the director. It’s a nod, an inside-the-industry tribute to those behind the scenes, those who are responsible for more than most realize.
But not all is peaches and cream in Lillian, Ohio. After about an hour of marvelously balancing self-consciousness about the olden days with present-tense fun, “Super 8” comes across as a completely different movie when the crew become privy to classified information and decide to take action. It was as if Abrams wasn’t sure what to do next, so, sadly, the movie takes a decidedly Michael Bay-style turn into the realms of explosions and preposterousness. For a film that revels in capturing human emotion, it’s unneeded to see some kids evading rockets and artillery as they traverse a war-torn town.
Named for the camera that allowed the average American family to record the moments worth remembering in their lives, “Super 8″ is charming and celebratory. And though the ending may leave you feeling a bit underwhelmed (the movie’s ending, not the credits, which are worth sticking around for), “Super 8” will have you pining for the good ol’ days, even if you weren’t around to see them.
Four stars out of five.