Director: J.J. Abrams
Whether he revels in the fact or not, J.J. Abrams has become synonymous with adrenaline-fueled entertainment. In the feature film arena, he broke out writing Michael Bay‘s career-defining blockbuster Armageddon, then made his directorial debut on the high-octane third Mission: Impossible film, before single-handily revitalizing the Star Trek franchise. Super 8, his latest crowd-pleasing creation, marks the first time he has directed his own script. Fusing his personal ambitions as a young filmmaker, with a Steven Spielberg (also executive producer here) sense of adventure and escapism, Abrams captures the rare sweet spot of ingenuous childlike wonder, delivering high entertainment value in both spectacle and character.
From the first shot, Abrams is not coy when it comes to his on-the-nose approach. Mixing broad plot devices with genuinely strong character moments is bread and butter for the blockbuster maker. We learn Joe Lamb (played by newcomer Joel Courtney) and his father Jackson (Kyle Chandler) have lost their mother in a local mill accident within the tight-knit town of Lillian, Ohio. Four months later, school is out and Joe’s friends (Ryan Lee, Zach Mills, Gabriel Basso, Riley Griffiths) embark on their mission for the summer of 1979: creating the ultimate monster movie on 8mm. Setting a night shoot at the local abandoned train depot, their only friend with a car (Elle Fanning), agrees to take the female lead role and they all head to the location. During their first shot, an approaching train gets mysteriously derailed, causing a massive explosion which results in the government stepping in and the mystery beginning.
The enigma that unravels is not one that can be spoiled or unlocked with a “super secret” reveal, as Paramount has been touting. This is a simple adventure film with thrills, laughs, and a fair share of scares. We have the budding, exquisitely handled relationship between Fanning and Courtney, as they travel around town focusing on their zombie production. On the other side there are the adults, whose relationships are less complex and matching the smaller focus Abrams gives them. Chandler is the only sheriff in town that can get anything done, protecting his citizens of the brewing Air Force takeover, led by Noah Emmerich‘s murky character. Fanning’s father (Ron Eldard) is the town drunk and battling hidden demons as he attempts to rip his daughter away from the group of amateur filmmakers. The menacing monster terrorizing the town is our last story strand, highlighted by scenes of clueless residents disappearing in inventive ways, as Abrams shows off his suspense-building skills.
By packing in these many plot threads, Abrams is careful to keep progression full steam ahead. When he slows down it is with good measure, particularly a delicate scene of remembrance between Fanning and Courtney, providing some of the best child acting on display. Focusing on a wide array of players, some end up get lost in the shuffle. There is an extended period where we don’t see Chandler, and when he returns, an odd character transformation occurs. The lack of backstory is also an issue. For the emotional payoff Abrams so desperately wants to convey, we need more than just a few moments of looking back to the past. If there was fifteen to twenty minutes tacked on to the beginning, where we actually experience the past, the ending could have been as iconic as the Spielberg films it homages.
Our tight group of best friends provide the most joy, as their natural banter and sheer eagerness will have you thinking of your favorite childhood moments, without ever thriving strictly on nostalgia. Where misfires like Greg Mottola‘s Paul did nothing more than cheaply reference Spielberg classics, Abrams has carefully put his unique, kinetic stamp on the formula.
Super 8 is just plain fun to be a part of. Abrams can craft experiences that few mass appeal filmmakers can replicate. His ability to inject excitement into nearly every frame, while bringing his audience along for the ride, is a rare gift. Many summer films make it a chore to unravel their stories, as comic-book mythologies must be adhered to and franchises need to fit into their continuity timeline. Like a breath of fresh air, here is a film that captivates with its slick, throwback charm. Bring your entire family, because we finally have crowd-pleaser that warrants the occasion.
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