DVD Review of Super 8: The kids are not just all right, they’re spectacular in this J.J. Abrams-directed, Spielberg-produced coming-of-age story about a group of filmmaking friends who stumble upon something the government didn’t want anyone to see.
As a grown woman who has a framed poster of The Goonies hanging proudly in her condo, the odds were high that I’d enjoy Super 8. Give me a bunch of mostly wholesome kids setting off on or unwittingly pulled into a crazy adventure, throw in some family drama and sci-fi/supernatural elements, and I’m usually a happy camper. Assuming the cast can truly act, that is, and not come off like a bunch of obnoxious brats or Kid Ach-tors desperately trying to seem like Normal Kids but convincing no one. Thankfully, the best thing about Super 8 is how wonderful its young cast members are—and I mean every single one of them. I still can’t get over the talent on display. They were a joy to watch, and when writer/director J.J. Abrams took the focus off of them, the film suffered.
The year is 1979, and the outgoing/kinda bossy Charles (Riley Griffiths) is hellbent on winning the local film competition with his brilliant zombie movie. To do this he needs not only his friends, but also Alice, an “older” (meaning fourteen) girl Charles convinces to play the lead female role. Alice’s involvement in the production immediately has Charles’ best friend Joe (Joel Courtney) both dazed and confused. It’s clear he’s been admiring the cute blonde from afar, but why she’d want to be involved in their goofy little horror flick is beyond his comprehension.
Alice has her reasons, and they revolve around a strained relationship with her father (Ron Eldard). Joe’s got daddy issues, too, as it were. After his mom died in a factory accident, Joe has had a hard time clicking with his father (Friday Night Lights‘ Kyle Chandler). What’s more, Joe’s dad and Alice’s dad hate each other. Oh yeah, forbidden love is in the air, people!
So Charles, Joe, Alice, and the rest of their friends (including standout Ryan Lee as the pyromaniac Cary, who has as much fun blowing stuff up as The Goonies‘ Data had setting “booty traps”) head out to the train station and scramble to shoot a scene with a real train zooming by behind them. “Production value!” explains Charles, as everyone takes their places. But something or someone deliberately crosses the raging locomotive’s path, setting in motion a spectacular crash sequence that—while eventually a tad overblown—is still pretty amazing to watch. The kids run for safety and split up amongst the wreckage, while Charles’ Super 8 camera gets knocked over… but keeps filming. Unfortunately in the days before everything was done Now Now Now!, it’ll take at least 72 hours to see what develops on the tape.
In the meantime, the government quickly descends upon the small town. Joe’s dad is a police officer, but can’t get any answers. Dogs start disappearing. Appliances start disappearing. People start disappearing. Something’s been unleashed in the train wreck, and even before Charles, Joe, and the gang watch their video from that night, they start piecing together what kind of danger might be afoot.
While I won’t give away any details, I will say that I wasn’t surprised at all—not one bit—when what the Feds were transporting on the rails was finally revealed. Those expecting a big twist or Gotcha! moment will likely be disappointed. In fact, those expecting Super 8 to be more of a sci-fi film than a kids’ adventure/drama will probably also be disappointed. That doesn’t mean Abrams didn’t try to make the movie fit both of those genres, he just had more success with the latter. Once the story began shifting away from the group of friends to What Was On The Train, I felt like someone started softly slapping me on the face, gently waking me up from the dreamlike happy trance I’d been in for over a good hour. (I was even able to be in that happy trance despite Abrams’ unholy love of lens flare.)
I cared about the kids; I didn’t really care about the big mystery or how it would be resolved. That resolution came at the very end of the film, and I found it to be pretty darn cheesy. Thankfully the finished zombie flick plays over the end credits and helped to restore some of my warm and fuzzies.
While I wish the sci-fi and action elements of Super 8 hadn’t taken center stage as the story drew to a close, the film still delivers the best live-action, family-friendly, “classic Spielbergian” entertainment we’ve seen out of Hollywood in years. My favorite scenes were where Charles, Joe, Cary and crew were talking over each other in such excitement about either their movie or what they’d witnessed at the train station that it was just impossible to believe their conversation was scripted. Another great moment was between Charles and Joe when Charles finally lets his guard down and admits some insecurities and jealousies. I teared up. And don’t even get me started on Elle Fanning. The girl is a rock star. When she first puts her acting chops on display for the gang at the train station, it leaves them (and the real movie audience) speechless. She does it again later when zombified. I can’t wait to see what comes next for her. Actually, I’m positive that all of the young cast members have promising careers ahead of them. And this is after they’ve starred in a J.J. Abrams/Steven Spielberg production—which would the be-all end-all goal for most actors, right?
Redbox movies from the Super 8 team: