REVIEW: Super 8 [2011]

Score: 9/10 | ★ ★ ★ ½

Rating: PG-13 | Runtime: 112 minutes | Release Date: June 10th, 2011 (USA)
Studio: Paramount Pictures
Director(s): J.J. Abrams
Writer(s): J.J. Abrams

“Cut! … That was mint.”

When the silhouette of a boy and his bike floats across a moon as a blue Amblin wavers its way over, you know you’re in for something special. A flood of nostalgia overwhelms and you feel like a kid again, anticipating the heartfelt tale of mystery and adventure that waits. Credit producer Steven Spielberg for refusing to update his shingle’s iconic look, retaining the fuzzy quality devoid of the computers we had become accustomed to in the 80s. Couple it with J.J. Abrams’s Bad Robot twirling its way to the foreground and Hollywood brings us full circle, the student paying homage to his idol, bringing back childlike whimsy to supernatural tales currently chock full of metallic screeches and bombastic explosions. With Super 8 we are thrust into a small town world of community, spying on a group of kids out having fun completing a film for competition. Add a little Goonies adventure, a healthy portion of E.T. for a sense of compassionate understanding for a stranger yearning to go home, and the secret ingredient of Cloverfield to add bite and what’s created is the best summertime flick since those days in mom and dad’s backseat at the drive-in.

It’s not just the horrific collision of train and pick-up truck, derailing the former and shredding the latter as destruction is left in its wake. The real explosive crash at hand is that of old and new filmic sensibilities, the emotive quality of yesteryear’s blockbusters with the technological feats of today. This hybridization went straight through to the marketing, alternating new and old, each with a slight tint of the other shining within. Our first glimpse at the film was a cryptic teaser of something massive breaking free from an overturned Air Force train, its mystery, its appeal, its viral burrowing into our memories unavoidable. Eventually a poster arrives shrouded in the darkening clouds of night, a blue flare of light emanating from a water tower off-center, the entire image turned on its side like the fallen camera, cracked and still rolling as carnage is inflicted around it. The allure is palpable and yet still no knowledge is yet gleaned from cast and crew, confidentiality agreements signed in blood to prevent leaks. And then comes the full trailer with Michael Giacchino doing his best impression of 80s film score to accompany the close-up, wide-eyes of wonder. End the campaign with a Drew Struzan inspired one-sheet and the time to watch finally arrives.

Cue in high emotion as we begin with the camera fixated on an industrial plant’s billboard of ‘days since last accident’, the number changing from 700+ to 1. This is our introduction to young Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney), alone in mourning on his swing-set as family and friends eat inside the house. Deputy Lamb (Kyle Chandler) is obviously on edge, the reality of what has happened to his wife too new to assimilate, his aggressive anger uncoiled with the arrival of Louis Dainard (Ron Eldard), a scuffle off-screen ending with the latter in cuffs as Lamb tells his son he’ll be back soon. What is it that Dainard has done? How is it that Lamb can remain so stone-faced as his son wallows in sorrow, his mother’s locket clasped in his hand? Answers to these questions are not yet available, but the desire for knowledge never leaves as we fast-forward four months later to the real adventure’s start. Time has passed, but the Lambs have yet to confront each other with what has occurred, both hunkering down in work—the elder with protecting the town and the younger helping best friend Charles (Riley Griffiths) finish his film.

A zombie movie with no real direction or plot, Charles is desperate to add some gravitas. Enlisting the help of Alice (Elle Fanning), he sets up a midnight film session to add in a female voice, a woman’s touch to add heart and humanity to the detective hunting the undead at the lead. By far the most talented of these amateur actors, Alice not only instills a sense of warmth to the project, but also to the lives of these boys just minutes before singing an a cappella version of “My Sharona” with Ryan Lee’s Cary ecstatically talking about his homemade explosives. Shooting at the local railroad station, an approaching train is serendipitous in its ability to add production value to their scene, the noise raising the actors’ volume as emotions reach heights unachievable in the silence of night. But while everyone is engrossed with Alice and Martin’s (Gabriel Basso) words, Joe has had his eye caught on a swerving pickup bee-lining towards the locomotive’s engine. Next comes the explosion and writhing of metal on metal agony, shrapnel and fire falling from the sky as the Middle Schoolers run on an aimless search for safety.

Giving away much more plot than this would be a disservice to the film’s ability to surprise, amaze, and succeed in its unraveling of secrets. I’ll simply say that the driver of the truck is not dead, nor a stranger to the kids witnessing the crash. And besides Joe seeing the kicked out door of escape, no evidence of anything leaving the rumble is seen save the plethora of white, plastic-like Rubik’s Cubes strewn about, soon reacquired by the military racing to the scene as the kids pile into Alice’s father’s car—miraculously saved from harm—to drive away, promising to say nothing about what they saw. Martin is puking, Charles and Cary are attempting to stay cool, Preston (Zach Mills, with the greatest facial expressions ever) is wide-eyed in fear, and Joe and Alice calmly process what’s happened, their detached, not-so-happy childhoods preparation for dealing with such tragic events. Without knowledge as to the full extent of what happened, they decide to use the military cover-up as a backdrop to their film, remaining in the background as Deputy Lamb tries to find answers. Unafraid to rile up Noah Emmerich’s Nelec, head of army interference, Lamb looks to solve why all engines and energy sources have disappeared, why brownouts are rampant, and why the town’s dogs have run away.

Amidst the supernatural aspects of a gigantic behemoth, seen shadowy in the fringes of the screen’s frame, resides a touching tale of learning to forgive. There is burgeoning love between Joe and Alice—both Courtney and Fanning highlight a youthfully brilliant cast supported by Griffiths’ Orson Welles-like ego and Basso’s amusing neuroses—conflicted fathers turning their pain against the children they should hold close—Eldard shows nuance, but its Chandler who steals scenes with his mask of strength—and an intriguing tale of military experimentation gone wrong—Emmerich thanklessly wasted while Glynn Turman shines as the driver who turned the town of Lillian on its head. These threads coexist, but it’s the children’s that drives the story towards its conclusion of overcoming fear to save home and the delicate familial relationship of father and child. The humor is superb with well-written dialogue and fun periphery like Charles’ eccentric family, the detail is painstakingly accurate to 1979, and J.J. Abrams shows once again how no one currently comes close to his power in crafting a cinematic experience that transcends time. Super 8 is something special and you’d be doing yourself a favor by running out to see it right now.

No matter how much this film harkens back to the days of family-friendly fare, it is very much a PG-13 film. Cursing is rampant and the central creature is a frightening bit of imagination that will scare as much as its brethren did in Cloverfield. So, parents, tread lightly with younger children.

Also, don’t forget to stay for the end credits to watch the completed film, ‘The Case’. Yes, that homemade Super 8 flick being shot by Charles and company is compiled and shown in all its glory as cast and crew scroll by.

[1] Left to right: Gabriel Basso plays Martin, Ryan Lee plays Cary, Joel Courtney plays Joe Lamb, and Riley Griffiths plays Charles in SUPER 8, from Paramount Pictures. Photo credit: François Duhamel © 2011 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
[2] Kyle Chandler plays Jackson Lamb in SUPER 8, from Paramount Pictures. Photo credit: François Duhamel © 2011 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
[3] Elle Fanning plays Alice Dainard in SUPER 8, from Paramount Pictures. Photo credit: François Duhamel. © 2011 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

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