Screen Rant's Kofi Outlaw Reviews Super 8
Super 8 has had something of a confusing marketing campaign leading up to its release. Some people know it as 'that J.J. Abrams and Steven Spielberg movie,' while others know it as 'that Goonies-meets-ET' throwback flick.' Then there are others (many others) who won't have the faintest idea what this film is all about.
As with any movie, it's important to approach Super 8 with your expectations properly aligned to what the film has to offer - and in this case, that offering is a mix of nostalgia, thrills, and good-old-fashioned movie magic, conjured by a cast of charmingly funny and talented young actors.
Despite all of its creature-feature promises, the story of the film is classic Spielbergian drama: in 1970s small-town Ohio, young Joe Lamb (newcomer Joel Courtney) loses his mother in a tragic accident. Joe's father, deputy Jackson Lamb (Kyle Chandler), is broken by the loss, and buries his pain beneath his role as the town's stalwart protector. Alone and neglected, young Joe finds his own ways to displace his grief - mainly by clutching onto a locket his mother wore, and by aiding his friend Charles (Riley Griffiths) in making an amateur super 8 movie called "The Case," which the boys hope to submit to a local film festival.
One night, Joe, Charles, and the rest of their crew (Cary, a pyro, Martin, a worry-wort, and Preston, a goody-two-shoes) decide to sneak away to film a pivotal scene out by the train station. The boys are joined by a girl (of course): Alice Dainard (Elle Fanning), a skilled actress who happens to be the rebellious daughter of the town drunk...and Joe's secret crush.
Everything is "mint" (you'll hear that term a lot in this film) until a pickup truck swerves onto the tracks and derails an oncoming train. In the aftermath of the destruction, the kids learn that this accident was no accident, and that the train was not your average train. They narrowly escape the scene before the military locks it down, but soon after, their town is plagued by a series of mysterious occurrences that force the kids to face an unimaginable situation - one that will inevitably bring Joe and his father face-to-face with their issues.
Let's be clear: Super 8 is not the sci-fi monster movie that some people may be expecting. There is indeed a strange creature terrorizing the kids' town, but this plot thread is mostly used for narrative drive, and the creature itself is seldom shown in the film (until the climax, of course). What the movie chooses to focus on instead, is how this group of kids bond and develop during this extraordinary event - especially Joe and Alice, whose budding romance (and all the problems it causes) is more of a "Romeo & Juliet" story.
Some people may read that description and feel like Super 8 is another bait-and-switch film that promises one thing and delivers another. How a movie is marketed is another topic, but it's clear in the film that the intention of the filmmakers (Abrams and to lesser extent Spielberg) is to pay homage to '80s movies like The Goonies, which told coming of age tales by placing children in fantastical (often dangerous) situations. And, as with any coming of age story, the odds of the film's success rest heavily on the shoulders of its young cast.
The kid characters in Super 8 are pretty thinly drawn - sad kid, crazy kid, egotistical kid, scared kid, etc. - however the young actors playing them are pretty solid. The kids are at once '70s vintage and very modern, using old slang ("mint!") combined with a modern edge (some profanity, but nothing too offensive). Several of the kids are very charismatic (Griffiths as Charles and Ryan Lee as pyromaniac Cary steal just about every scene they're in), and the two leads (Courtney and Fanning) are downright talented. Their puppy-love romance has many layers of grief, guilt, loneliness and longing bubbling under the surface, and the movie's best moments come from watching Joe and Alice connect over their pain.
As a newcomer, Courtney isn't the greatest when it comes to nuance and subtlety - but thankfully the script calls for Joe to be mostly numb and blank-faced instead of openly emotional; his feelings are instead expressed through symbolic means, such as the locket he clutches for comfort. Elle Fanning (the sister of Dakota Fanning) is leagues ahead of the boys, and Abrams wisely puts most of the heavier moments in the film on her shoulders and lets her carry them home. Definite star potential there.
The adults in the film (like the creature) are mostly used for backdrop and filler moments in the story. Kyle Chandler continues to be one of the better actors working today, and pulls off a character arch that is so understated you have to watch his eyes and the very lines of his face to pick out the complexity of what's going on in deputy Lamb's troubled head. Ron Eldard similarly does well playing Alice's dad, Louis Dainard, who he manages to lift out of the realm of cliche (the town drunk / abusive father) up to an equally complex and nuanced performance.
Other faces pop up here and there - Noah Emmerich as the evil military commander, Richard T. Jones as his henchman, other recognizable faces as the townspeople - but they're not exactly well-developed, interesting or even memorable. The exception is maybe David Gallagher as Donny, the town pothead, a bit part that is milked for maximum hilarity. While the lack of depth in a lot of the characters is noticeable, it isn't all that disappointing since the young protagonists are really the focus here.
For the most part, J.J. Abrams pulls off a good balance of light humor, drama that's never too heavy, and some good jump-in-your-seat thrills here and there. The downside is that the final act of the movie devolves into a standard sci-fi action chase, complete with a Spielberg-brand, gooey feel-good ending that does away with a lot of the great foundation built beneath it. However, this is often the case with stories that hinge on some kind of central mystery: the revelations are rarely as satisfying as the anticipation. The creature (for all the mystery surrounding it) isn't all that impressive, and for some, the character transitions will feel rushed or unearned (I found them to be subtle and nuanced, but that's just me).
Overall, though, Super 8 is a pretty enjoyable movie experience and the young characters at its center are pretty entertaining. The story is nothing new or revolutionary, but the element of nostalgia is a favorable one. Oh, and for those wondering: Yes, Abrams still manages to fit some of his signature "lens flares" into the movie. Take that how you will.
If you're still on the fence about whether or not to see Super 8, check out the trailer below. If you want to know more about the film's mysterious creature, watch this revealing viral video.
Finally, to discuss the movie in detail without worrying about ruining it for those who haven't seen it yet, head over to our Super 8 spoilers discussion.