What It Is
As Super 8 begins, it’s 1979, and Joe (Joel Courtney) has just lost his mother. Neighbors watch him seated on a swing, in the snowy backyard of his home, where they’ve assembled for the wake. As they look through the window, they worry that the quiet, polite 14-year-old will find it hard to live on alone with his father, Jack (Kyle Chandler), a hardworking deputy in their small Ohio town. Yes, the neighbors murmur, it will be hard.
Some months later, Joe has turned his attentions to a summertime project, helping his best friend Charles (Riley Griffiths) make a movie. It’s a zombie picture, modeled after George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, wherein a community has to fight off a fleet of lumbering, gray-faced ghouls, sometimes contending with explosives effects, engineered by the boys’ firebuggy friend Cary (Ryan Lee, wearing giant braces on his teeth that flash bright whenever he smiles, which is often: the kid is completely charming). The detective hero is played by their tallest classmate, Martin (Gabriel Basso), in a bad suit and glasses. Joe’s on sound and makeup, and sometimes plays an extra character, and Charles is writing and directing; in fact, he’s rewriting scenes daily, as when he decides to add a wife for the detective. Joe resists, wondering, “I just don’t understand why the wife makes it a story.” Charles explains that this helps the audience care what happens to him: “It matters because she loves him.”
Bringing Alice (Elle Fanning) in to play the wife changes everything. Joe and the other boys are smitten: she drives her dad’s yellow Skylark, illegally, and can cry on cue for her scene. As she takes a liking to Joe, his priorities begin to shift. When Jack demands he stay away from Alice, he fights back, tearfully, rather than doing as he’s told. And when the kids witness a train wreck during a nighttime shoot, followed by an invasion of U.S. Air Force troops, who arrive on the scene to confiscate the boxcars’ contents, Joe is drawn into an investigation.
In this, Joe is like the detective in their film, and he’s also like his father, who sees his own investigation as a matter of protecting his community. First Joe finds a strange occurrence recorded by the boys’ Super 8 camera, knocked over during the train wreck. Then, he and his friends find more film, a secret recorded and kept by the government that involves an alien.
As Joe commits himself to solving the mystery, he finds himself growing up faster than he could ever have imagined.
Why It’s Fun
The kids are excellent. Every one of these young performers is convincing, sometimes awkward and other times assured, frequently vulnerable and often incredibly brave. Loyal to each other and thoughtful when they need to sort out problems, they’re the best kind of movie kids, not mugging, not cloying, but earnest and funny too. Their conversations reflect at once their age-appropriate naïvete and determination to make the world right.
The storyline focused on the kids sorting out the mystery is clever and engaging. It’s less good when the cardboardy adults (especially the villainish Air Force colonel, Nelec, played by Noah Emmerich) start revealing why they’re chasing the alien, and when loose ends come together too neatly, when a pair of fathers and their children are reunited by their run-in with a monster: it’s a standard turn of events in such movies (see especially: Steven Spielberg’s early films, like Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind or E.T.), but it’s rushed and contrived here.
Joe makes model trains and action figures: his bedroom is full of wonderfully detailed iconography, from classic horror movies to new (in 1979) popular culture.
Who’s Going To Love It
Fans of science fiction movies with “heart” will love Super 8. It’s at once nostalgic and up-to-date, especially in its rendering of the kids’ interactions.
Moviegoers looking for family entertainment will enjoy seeing convincing relationships, especially between the children. Though the adults occasionally seem like problems set in the kids’ way, Joe, Alice, and Charles are great characters.
The scary material makes this movie a bit much for young viewers: the rating, PG-13, seems about right this time.
What To Be Aware Of
The sad scene at the start, when we learn Joe’s mother has been killed in a steel mill accident, is appropriately sad, though delicately handled. Joe sees his father — acting as deputy and also anguished widower — push around an unwelcome visitor at the wake. This man turns out to be Alice’s father, Louis (Ron Eldard), drunk and abusive. Joe and Jack exchange looks, and their mutual grief and disappointment are palpable.
Some jump scenes, where a sudden movement or noise might startle some viewers.
The action scenes can be scary even when they’re exciting. The train wreck is loud and dark and violent, with machinery and flames shooting every which way. The kids discover a victim here, their science teacher, Dr. Woodward (Glynn Turman), bloodied and burned in the pickup truck he’s driven straight into the train.
Other possibly worrisome scenes include the murder of Dr. Woodward (still disfigured by his injuries, he’s poisoned in his hospital bed by one of Nelec’s men), and the boys’ escape from Nelec’s men, who are tearing through town on tanks and missile launchers, destroying everything.
Alice is kidnapped by the alien, an action that’s mostly unseen, but her scream is aptly unnerving.
When Joe finally confronts the alien, it is indeed large and frightening, with huge teeth and reptilian features, much like scary monsters tend to look in the movies.
Charles’ older sister Jen (AJ Michalka) bothers her parents by wearing short skirts and tops that shows cleavage.
Jen is the object of open lust for the local camera store clerk, Donny (David Gallagher), who agrees to drive the kids to the high school one night in hopes of landing a date with her. He also smokes pot and offers some to the boys, who turn him down.
Some language, including “sh**” (one version is mouthed, somewhat comically), one f-word, and “pussy.”
7 out of 10
Director: J.J. Abrams
Cast: Kyle Chandler, Elle Fanning, Joel Courtney, Gabriel Basso, Noah Emmerich, Ron Eldard, Riley Griffiths, Ryan Lee, Zach Mills, Glynn Turman
Studio: Amblin Entertainment, Bad Robot
US Premiere: June 10, 2011
UK Premiere: August 5, 2011