Steven Spielberg is the man responsible for some of my favorite movies of all time. J.J. Abrams is the mad scientist looking to combine all many different formulas of Spielberg’s films into a cinematic experience that transports us back younger more awe struck versions of ourselves. SUPER 8 has influences that range from Spielberg films like E.T. and JURASSIC PARK to films like THE GOONIES and even the Abrams produced CLOVERFIELD. Make no mistake though; Abrams has put together a very special film in SUPER 8 that’s as different as it is familiar.
SUPER 8 follows Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney), who is struggling with the death of his mother and is left with his father Jackson (Kyle Chandler). Joe and his father do not have a strong bond as Jackson wants to send Joe off for the summer and Joe wants to help his friends finish filming a zombie movie. One night Joe sneaks out late to meet his friends to film at a train track when a truck crashes into a train causing it to derail and consequently releasing its cargo out into the small town nearby. Before too long the military is swarming the area and keeping the police and citizens in the dark even with strange disappearances and other activities popping up everywhere. Joe and his friends become intent on figuring out what is going on while also trying to finish their film.
I struggled with exactly how I felt about SUPER 8 when the credits rolled. I had a phenomenal time with the film up until a certain moment during the ending. As I thought about it though, the way the film made me feel for the first hour and a half was undeniable and I came to the decision that I flat out loved SUPER 8. It’s true; I have a problem with a specific moment in the ending because it was overly sappy in a moment that I don’t believe was necessary. However, despite that moment and the fact that what I got from SUPER 8 was not at all what I expected left me with a feeling a sense of wonder that comes from watching a truly immersive film and not just an action packed special effects extravaganza.
I have to say the film’s marketing did a great job at concealing nearly everything that made this film so memorable for me. The trailers hint at certain moments involving the threat that lurks in the darkness but never selling how dark and creepy the scenes end up being. In fact the best parts of SUPER 8 are not the lingering shots of the mysterious cargo from the derailed train, but the buildup that leads up to the jump scares and the ferocity of the attacks once they happen. In many ways the buildup scenes where almost nothing is happening are more effective than when something actually happens. The sense of the unknown overshadows spectacle in SUPER 8.
Much like CLOVERFIELD the escaped cargo in SUPER 8 is not the focus of the film, just the background device that thrusts the films events into action. What we have is a film full of character development so that we care for and understand each character. On top of the main story of the friends and their film is the mystery of what led to the train derailment and what exactly was on the train to begin with. Watching the kids interact and shoot their movie sometimes made me forget that there was a separate menace waiting in the wings to break loose which is a huge testament to the J.J. Abrams direction. Also, you should stay during the credits to watch the entire short film the characters are working on throughout SUPER 8.
All of the kid actors are pretty great; they’re funny and often charming. The central character of Joe played by Joel Courtney carries the films main emotional theme. Once again the emotional buildup is pretty phenomenal but sadly fell flat during the one moment at the end that I didn’t care for. Joe’s father played by Kyle Chandler also has a specific emotional arc that hits all the right notes as well as some of the other kids’ stories. My biggest problem lies in the ending which I won’t spoil but it’s obvious they are reaching for some kind of emotional response which I personally didn’t feel, which was disappointing because I fully expected that I would be fully in tears at that point because the buildup was done so well. However, because I enjoyed all the scenes leading up to what was supposed to be the emotional peak I can accept that the payoff wasn’t as organic or effective as I wanted it to be.
J.J. Abrams has a firm grasp on special effects and SUPER 8 is not devoid of them, but like I said, the film is much more substance than spectacle. The train derailment is very impressive and it’s also the biggest CGI set piece minus the final 20 minutes. Story is the key here as there are plenty of turns that take place throughout the film and it remains entertaining from start to finish, not once did I ever feel bored even during some of the really slow scenes.
I have no doubt that SUPER 8 has the capacity to dazzle audiences, but more importantly it doesn’t trade cheap thrills for genuine excitement. The film nails all key emotions of fear, wonder, excitement, sadness and love and doesn’t skimp on any of them. I applaud Abrams for scripting a film that favors characters and story while also delivering effective tension and chills. SUPER 8 is a summer blockbuster that will make you jump, gasp and maybe even cry. The film transports us to a time with no cell phones, IPods or internet, when adventure and imagination were our strongest motivations. SUPER 8 stuns with an impressive script filled to the brim with fantastic characters that are performed flawlessly and a brilliant retro vibe rolled into an intimate story told in grand fashion.