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Super 8 is J.J. Abrams covering a Steven Spielberg movie. If seeing an Amblin Entertainment logo pop up before a movie is the sort of thing that gives you goosebumps, or if E.T. will always fill you with childlike joy, then this is the movie for you. If, on the other hand, you choose to watch Super 8 with a critical eye, locate the defects that make it less than perfect … well, that’s certainly your right. Just don’t make too much noise and ruin all the fun the rest of us are having.
NOTE: If you haven’t seen the movie yet, I encourage you to stop reading and wait until you have. A review is meant to educate, but the only thing you really need to know going in is laid out in the above paragraph. The rest of this review is meant to add to what will undoubtedly be an ongoing conversation. Light to medium spoilers ahead.
You have been warned.
The story opens on a quiet little town in Ohio in 1979. The very first thing we see is an “Accident-free since …” sign at the local industrial mill being set back to zero. Someone has died, and it’s a death that will resonate across the rest of the movie. We then cut to the home of the Lamb family, where a wake is under way. Mrs. Lamb is the departed, the victim of the accident, leaving her deputy sheriff husband Jack (Kyle Chandler) and her treasured little boy Joe (Joel Courtney) to learn to fend for themselves.
Joe is a budding Hollywood-dweller, the make-up and special-effects guy in a small gang of neighborhood kids working to create a zombie movie for a nearby film festival. Those efforts are what bring them to a remote train platform in the dead of night, where they witness the horrifying, stunning spectacle of a train wreck after a lone pickup truck drives it off the rails. The Air Force quickly descends on the wreck, which was carrying a now-escaped visitor from a distant world that has been trapped on Earth since the 1950s.
Super 8 follows multiple story threads, with the unfortunate problem being that none of them ever truly feels fleshed out enough. A lot of the most emotional moments feel unearned, particularly in the final scenes. The performances are strong top to bottom, especially in the case of the younger cast members, but there’s just not enough time to lay out all the pieces of this complex puzzle. It almost feels like there’s a director’s cut locked away just screaming to be released, with all of the missing character development waiting to be revealed.
What’s remarkable is that the missing elements don’t show themselves until after you’ve seen the movie. The unfolding story is so instantly captivating that you’ll be drawn right in. Like the best of Spielberg’s family-friendly classics, Super 8 is an event, an experience. You can feel the veteran filmmaker’s presence throughout, particularly in the self-conscious staging of each shot and the modern-day fairy tale feel.
Abrams’ stamp is very much there, especially in the design of the alien and the melodrama that falls just shy of feeling overwrought. Like the movie’s youngsters shooting their zombie movie, this is a loving tribute. There are higher production values and a much more talented cast, but Abrams is basically a kid with a camera trying to mimic his film hero … and doing a damn good job of it. It’s no surprise to see the finished cut of the movie-within-a-movie zombie flick playing over the end credits, in what is perhaps the most entertaining end-credits sequences ever committed to film.
The thread of story involving the alien is pure Jaws, with a splash of E.T. thrown in that is heavily foreshadowed almost from moment one. There are maybe 10 minutes in all of screen time for the fully revealed creature, but there’s the suspense of good, old-fashioned jump scares throughout as people from all over town have their own close encounters.
The zombie-movie crew, and, really, the dynamic between those kids, is pulled straight from The Goonies. There’s the shy protagonist with a hidden charisma (Courtney), the domineering “fat kid” writer/director of the zombie movie (Riley Griffiths), the mouthy smartass with a special appreciation for fire and explosives (Ryan Lee), the picked-on dumbass (Gabriel Basso) and the weak-kneed smarty-pants (Zach Mills). There’s also Alice Dainard (Elle Fanning), our young protagonist’s love interest. They’re archetypes, but perfectly rendered ones.
Finally, at the heart of the story, is the strained relationship between Joe and his dad. Jack has always been the more distant of the two parents, and he’s having a hard time being there for his son. He doesn’t support this waste of time working on a zombie movie, and he is inexplicably (at first) hostile toward Alice and her father, who we quickly learn has some connection with Mrs. Lamb’s death.
These stories weave in and out of one another at various points. While the full picture ends up lacking in the emotional punch department, the staging of it all comes together beautifully in the end. That’s the chief allure of Super 8, what keeps all thoughts of criticism from your mind as you watch: The effortless A-to-B movements unleash reveal after reveal. Abrams’ experiences from Lost are most apparent here, but all of the question asking and answering is distilled into this all-too-brief two-hour window.
Ultimately, the flaws are there to be teased out if you really want to look for them … but why bother? Skip the critics, myself included, and leave the analysis for the academics. Just go see it and allow yourself to be transported, like this is some old classic that is completely safe from criticism because of the special place it holds in your heart. Super 8 taps into those fond memories, even if it doesn’t necessarily belong there. It is a magical experience, and an instantly unforgettable one.
Super 8 opens Friday nationwide.