I must confess I’ve been waiting anxiously ever since I saw the first teaser trailer for Super 8. The combination of J.J. Abrams and Steven Spielberg would have been enough to get me into a seat in the theater. Spielberg invented the summer blockbuster with Jaws and then took it to a new level with ET: The Extraterrestrial, while Abrams’ Star Trek reboot was a pure joy. So I entered the theater with high expectations for what they could do together.
The movie they’ve created is a paean to their youthful film-making endeavors as well as those movies that have made the theater an integral part of our summer plans. Yet it is fresh and heartfelt, and deals with the timeless themes of love, loss, and redemption. Almost all the movie is told through the eyes of Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney), part of a sextet of middle-schoolers who are making a zombie movie. Even the footage from that first trailer has been redone from Joe’s viewpoint.
Joe’s mother has died in an industrial accident that his father Jackson (Kyle Chandler) blames on Louis Dainard (Ron Eldard). Four months later when school ends, Joe is helping his best friend Charles (Riley Griffiths) make his movie, along with three other boys (Gabriel Basso, Ryan Lee, and Zach Mills). Charles is an auteur in the making who constantly changes the script as they’re filming, including adding a girl’s role for Alice (Elle Fanning), Dainard’s daughter. While filming at a train station in the middle of the night, they witness a spectacular train wreck. Joe recognizes that the wrecked train belonged to the Air Force, and soon the military under the leadership of Colonel Nelec (Noah Emmerich) arrives to seal the scene. But not before something has escaped the train.
Joe and Alice are the heart and soul of the movie as they overcome both of their fathers’ disapproval to form a relationship in their motherless world. Elle Fanning at 13 is already a pro, especially with her turn in Sophia Coppela’s Somewhere last year. Here she is truly a leading lady who demonstrates her acting ability within the Zombie movie in a way that stuns the boys. The true discovery is Joel Courtney, who’d never been in a film before. He’s an actor who can speak volumes without having a line of dialogue, as he does at the beginning of the film, sitting on a swing outside his house in a winter landscape while the reception after his mother’s funeral takes place inside.
The other four boys offer gems of supporting performances, and are a believable gang that would hang around together. Chandler and Eldard, mostly known for their television work (Friday Night Lights and ER respectively), shine here, and Noah Emmerich makes an excellent heavy as Nelec. (It’s interesting, in light of the movie within the movie, that Emmerich is currently appearing in AMC’s excellent Zombie series, The Walking Dead.)
As you’d expect, the special effects from ILM are top-notch and truly thrilling, as when the boys must race through their neighborhood that has been turned into a war zone. As you would expect from the person who gave us the smoke beast on Lost, the ET of this piece is not the cuddly kind who would play dress-up with Drew Barrymore. This is a Capital-A alien who is more like the shark in Jaws for most of the movie – hardly seen and completely frightening. Yet in a way it is more humane than Nelec.
The 1970’s setting – necessarily to predate camcorders – adds innocence to the movie as well. When the town’s police chief sees a convenience store attendant listening to one of the first Walkmans, his comment about technology being a slippery slope rings true in our lives. With Super 8, we step back to a simpler time, yet we learn that the values shown by Joe and the rest of the movie crew – loyalty, bravery, and understanding – are what we need in any time of crisis, regardless of what technology we’re using.
P.S.: Stay for the credits; you’ll get to watch the movie the kids were making.