Super 8 Directed by J.J. Abrams Starring: Kyle Chandler, Joel Courtney, Elle Fanning, Riley Griffiths, Gabriel Basso, Ryan Lee, Zach Mills, Ron Eldard Release Date: June 10, 2011
In the general dismay of cinema during these hot summer months there is a movie hopeful enough to fly upon the road toward originality. It despises most stupidity and harbors and displays a profound contempt for the immense reluctance directors and screenwriters exhibit when trying to craft a “refreshing” summer film. Super 8 swerves sharply in its walk, detaching itself from the summer films that find it a necessity to stir its audience into a panic via overwhelming action scenes, and passes other uninspiring films because it never shows a reluctance to engage with the consciousness, sensibilities, and behaviors found evident in all children. By engaging itself in this childhood realm the film approaches an innocence unrealized in mainstream cinema and doesn’t hesitate in grasping it. The results are penetrating, illuminating, and ultimately moving.
Director and screenwriter J.J. Abrams is working in rarefied air for the bulk of his third feature (Mission Impossible III and Star Trek his other features), exclusively occupying Super 8 in a space where only Mr. Steven Spielberg, this film’s producer, successfully prevailed in films such as E.T. and The Goonies. Embarking on a journey to capture the essential emotions found thriving in children is a task that is difficult to exactly pinpoint and to make it engaging for an adult crowd is even more difficult.
Six young children are growing up in Ohio in 1979: walkmans are in, walkie talkies are a hit toy with kids, and Blondie is having an impact on the music charts. The nostalgic intensity of Super 8 is most of the film’s brilliance. The film is an aesthetic wonderment to behold, visually stunning and yet so familiar to the eye that beholds it that one cannot repress their own childhood memories to emerge while watching. But leave it to Abrams to go beyond the visual. He showcases a masterful ability to quickly create significance and fear, mystery and joy, affection and loss all in the supposedly innocent realm of childhood. Six friends, Joe (Joel Courtney), Charles (Riley Griffiths), Martin (Gabriel Basso), Cary (Ryan Lee), Preston (Zach Mills), and class hottie Alice (Elle Fanning), are in the process of making a zombie picture for a school project. Charles is the insane director who bosses his crew around, hoping to get the best out of his actors (Martin, Cary, Preston, and Alice) and the best out of his make-up guy Joe, who happens to have butterflies in his stomach every time he places his eyes on Alice.
But love may be so far off for Joe and Alice. Joe’s father Jackson (Kyle Chandler) is the town’s deputy and is in continuous mourning due to his wife’s premature death at her job. He has some resentment built up in him and aims it all toward Alice’s father Louis (Ron Eldard), a drunk who has a personal demon gnawing away at his soul and tends to take it out on Alice. All this familial dissension leads to child bonding with child. Joe finds comfort at Charles’ home and all the children find comfort with each other. When filming a scene of their film one night they witness a catastrophic train accident that unleashes something unknown to the populace. They have to bond like never before to conceal what they saw transpire. Only evidence is what is on their Super 8 camera. Soon their tranquil town morphs into chaotic confusion as adults, police officers, scientists, and the Air Force all demand an explanation to the mysterious occurring around the city.
The enormity of “What’s in the train car?” doesn’t loom as large over the film as one would expect, partly because Abrams does a fabulous job in keeping our interest with the rambunctious lives of children who have a wonderful infatuation for creating a home movie on an old-school Super 8 tape recorder. Abrams entrenches us in this innocent world so immensely that by the time we are granted a glimpse of the elusive beast our curiosity for it has subdued unexpectedly. By the time it is revealed to us whatever it is that is secretly riding inside one of the Air Force train cars and will soon be reeking havoc on a small Ohio neighborhood, we have become well acquainted with the children, so much so that it is difficult to move in any other direction.
But as Abrams insists on moving away from the enjoyments and misgivings of childhood (the film’s most potent aspect), disregarding his brilliant evocation of childhood in exchange for an unaffectionate encounter with something trivial and monstrous. He essentially enters and roams the cinematic territories that have been well traveled multiple times prior in much lesser made films. His mind doesn’t lack a certain kind of imagination during the first half of the film: Wonderful relationships are realized and we get a sense of familiarity with every character and location the film has to give us. It is the latter part of the film that is fraught with precariousness and is totally devoid of creativity. And this is a shame because the majority of Super 8 is genius and that genius remains indissoluble despite a turbulent finish.