When I was six or seven years old I made a five-minute “movie” in my back yard involving a lonely parasaurolophus and her primeval travels through dinosaur land. It of course was a shoddy piece of filmmaking. The dinosaurs were mobilized by my well-disguised hand and their habitat was my mother’s vegetable garden. I recall it ended with a forest fire in which all the bad dinosaurs were incinerated and my heroin parasaurolophus survived to become a fossil. It looked completely fake, but at six years old it is easy to suspend your disbelief even if a dinosaur’s lips don’t move when it roars. Anyway, I was proud of it at the time. Super 8 celebrates this aspiration of young people like no other film I can recall.
At first, Super 8 is about a group of friends rushing to finish their zombie horror film before the deadline for the local film festival. Their filmmaking is actually pretty impressive, with good zombie effects and lots of gleeful gore. The young director is a pudgy, foul-mouthed fellow named Charles (Riley Griffiths) who, though demanding, is not a bad sort. His best friend Joe (Joel Lamb) does sound and make-up and occasionally an acting bit. He has a much more quiet persona than Charles, so the team balance each other out. To give their picture some sense of reality, they enlist the help of Alice (played wonderfully by Elle Fanning) to play the zombie hunter’s emotional wife. One night, they all sneak out to film a pivotal scene and they witness a violent train wreck. But soon, strange things begin to happen around town. People disappear, dogs vanish, the power comes in and out sporadically, and the kids begin to wonder if the train wreck was more than just a freak accident. Soon, their world is turned upside down as it becomes clear that some sort of monster has been awakened and is wreaking havoc upon their world.
Of course Super 8 has great visual effects. The monster is scary and the action pieces are exciting, but it’s not really about all of that. It’s not a CGI-fest. Super 8 is really about this group of friends and how they deal with the situation. All of the kid actors give believable performances. The script is careful not to let them become stereotypical teenagers. They’re real people, and the script treats them as such. The kids never miss a beat in their portrayal. They’re never goody-goodies, yet they’re never overly obstreperous either. They swear and make smart-aleck comments to each other as everyone does then (and some don’t grow out of it). That being said, the only established actor amid the youthful ranks is Elle Fanning, who made a name for herself in 2008’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Here, she shines, and I hope the Academy pays attention to her when selecting their supporting actress nominees.
As the mystery of the train wreck becomes more intriguing, the United States Air Force shows up to further complicate things. As always, they have some shifty business involving the crashing of that train, and pretty soon they have the town evacuated so that they can finish whatever sketchy project they’re working on. Then the action begins: the monster comes out of hiding, people starts dying, and things start blowing up. Director J.J. Abrams is careful not to let it become an incoherent mess of metal and fire. Instead he keeps the action focused on the main characters. Super 8, by its own merits, is the wagging finger of shame to most summertime action blockbusters. For ten years now audiences have had to suffer through countless mindless CGI romps with little intelligence or drama. Super 8, though it is full of action and adventure, never loses touch with its main story, which is the adventure of the kids. Super 8 rises out of mediocrity as one of the best summer blockbusters in years. It doesn’t show the audience everything at once. The monster is shrouded in darkness, leaving much to the imagination (believe me, it’s scarier that way).
I suppose the picture owes a lot to the works of Spielberg, particularly Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. – the Extra-Terrestrial. Like those movies, there is a sense of childlike wonder about Super 8. It is predictable at times, but it still feels fresh and new, like something we’ve never seen before. I suppose what it is at heart is a little boy’s zombie film the way he imagines it to be, rather than the way it turns out. So, for that alone, I guess this movie succeeds.
Paramount Pictures Presents a Bad Robot production
Cast: Joel Courtney, Elle Fanning, Riley Griffiths, Kyle Chandler, Ryan Lee, Gabriel Basso, Zach Mills, Ron Eldard, Amanda Michalka.
Directed by J.J. Abrams