As a kid, J.J. Abrams was inspired to make films with his Super 8 camera by Steven Spielberg’s “E.T.,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” As a teenager, young Abrams’ work attracted the attention of Spielberg, who hired him to cut together his old 8 mm home movies. Years later, they’re working together to bring their childhood memories of moviemaking to the big screen, with Abrams as writer and director, and Spielberg as producer.
The collaboration, “Super 8,” covers familiar territory for the two heavy hitters. It’s a combination of two stories that were, until recently, simply figments of Abrams’ imagination. The first story idea was to make a film about kids making Super 8 films, and the other involved a train carrying cargo from Area 51. The two collide in “Super 8,” a tribute to Spielberg’s earlier work and a chance for both to get back to where they once belonged.
Set in 1979, “Super 8,” features a group of early teenage kids from small-town Ohio using their summer to make a horror film. While filming at a train station, a military train passing by derails in an explosive mess. They leave as troops arrive to secure the scene. About then, car engines and power line begin to disappear. The kids, unable to put the train’s derailment out of their minds, start to investigate.
Due to the meshing of two stories, there are definitely two sides to this film. One is Abrams’ attempt to recapture the childlike wonder audiences felt when watching E.T., putting themselves into the shoes of young Henry Thomas and Drew Barrymore. The other is his attempt to make “Super 8” as technically impressive and action-packed as “Transformers,” and as cutting edge as Spielberg’s early films were. It’s a fine line to walk.
The script is a work of art for the first half, as Abrams, a master of imagery and suspense, cuts dialogue in favor of symbolism and physical communication, then peppers what dialogue’s left with delightful 70s slang and fills it with plenty of humor. Snatch scenes, where people disappear, are handled in a classic thriller/horror manner, with plenty of jump sequences. Eventually the film slows though, dragging a bit during melodramatic moments meant to help the film rise above other action-adventure sci-fi and give it a redemptive story of parent-child reconciliation. At its climax, the film’s technical work is meant to inspire and strike awe. It fails on both counts to recapture the newness and feeling of early Spielberg. The effects are stellar, but stellar effects are the rule today, not the exception.
Abrams is clearly a talented director. His shots excellently set the mood, whether it’s a fun scene of friends bickering and filming, or an eerie one with a monster lurking in the shadows. Additionally, he and his crew use a lot of traveling shots for a hand-held Super 8 feel.
The strongest part of this film is its young cast. Newcomer Joel Courtney does wonders with the young protagonist Joe, bringing a quietly passionate, determined kid to life. Joe mirrors his father, played by Kyle Chandler, the town’s top cop, a man who refuses to accept the official story that the train was hauling standard military equipment. Their characters both refuse to stop investigating when the going gets tough, and it brings them together in a touching – if a little hurried – way. Young actress Elle Fanning, the only significant female character in the film, holds her own among a hilarious group of guys comprising the supporting cast of Joe’s friends. Each member of this group is unique, and their easy, natural banter is reminiscent of “Sandlot.”
It’s pretty easy to figure out that whatever was being hauled by the train is extraterrestrial, even if the movie doesn’t spell it out for a while. Aliens get a pretty bad wrap in most movies, so Abrams’ creation of an alien “character” versus a monster sets this film apart. Of course, that doesn’t mean you have to like the creature. It kills a number of soldiers ruthlessly, and kidnaps townspeople for later consumption, which doesn’t really endear the creature the way it’s supposed to.
Ultimately it’s a summer flick, with some sweet explosions, a lot of laughs and a pretty good story. If Abrams was looking to make an instant classic, like the Spielberg films that inspired him, he missed the mark. Still, while “Super 8” is not that, it’s still a decent seven out of ten.