Horror. Worldview. Faith.

Super 8 – Review

Super 8 – Review

Jun 16, 2011

reviewed by Danny
directed by J.J. Abrams, 2011

When I returned home from seeing Super 8, I had to fight the urge to look through my VHS movie collection to make sure I didn’t already have it on tape.  It is that much of a throwback to the works of Spielberg and his halo of directors in the 70’s and 80’s.  Add some additional hints of Stephen King, and the overall effect is one of almost overpowering nostalgia.  If that was all the film had going for it, it would be ultimately unsatisfying, but Super 8’s real strength is its characters and their stories, which in the end are far more compelling than the sci-fi horror fiction that serves as their backdrop.

Super 8 opens with a wake for protagonist Joe’s mother, who has been killed in an industrial accident.  At the wake, we meet not just Joe, but his group of friends who are in some ways stereotypical adolescent film characters but ones who lean much closer to the underlying truths of the stereotypes than to their flat shadows.  This becomes more and more evident as the film progresses and we get to see the characters behave realistically to a variety of fantastic events.  I was especially glad to see (as weird as this will sound) one of the friends vomit in panic as one particularly frightening event played out.  Unlike so many genre films, we never get the sense that Super 8’s characters are taking the extraordinary situations for granted.

Those extraordinary events start when the kids witness the spectacular wreck of a military train carrying some unusual cargo.  Pre-release publicity makes it pretty clear that there is an alien on board the train, but I’ll avoid any more details since learning about the creature and its motivations is so closely intertwined with the young characters learning about themselves, and that character growth is, refreshingly, the real meat of the story.

At the heart of those stories is the relationship between Joe and his deputy father.  Apparently estranged before the mother’s death, the father and the son are struggling.  Refreshingly, Joe’s father is a good guy, and he is trying to make up for the past.  For his part, Joe can’t get separation from his mother’s memory, a fact symbolized by the fact that he carries his mother’s locket with him at all times.

This is clearly Joe’s film, but, like Goonies and Stand By Me, it is the ensemble of characters around him that truly make the film work.  It is such a success that it seems ridiculous that it has taken this long for a Hollywood to get back around to this model.  Of course, it takes great young actors to make the formula work, and Super 8 has an abundance of them, led by the stand out performance of Elle Fanning as Alice, a the troubled daughter of the man whose failure to show up for his shift put Joe’s mother in harm’s way.

For the first two and a half acts, Super 8 gets everything just about perfect.  It isn’t until the ending that Abrams’s film breaks down a little.  Clinging so closely to Spielberg’s conventions means Abrams is forced to give us a larger-than-life conclusion.  Here, it is not so visually spectacular to truly impress and, worse still, comes at the expense of not allowing the film’s sub-plots to come to a natural conclusion.  There is a hurried reconciliation between the two troubled teens and their estranged parents and then, “Cue the awesomeness.”  For a film that has spent so much time allowing us to learn about and care about its characters, the rush to climax is especially disappointing.

That quibble aside, Super 8 is a remarkable film and a great time at the theater.  In many ways, it is Abrams’s best movie and one that leaves me wondering just how great a director he is capable of being.

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