Title: Super 8
Directed By: J.J. Abrams
Starring: Joel Courtney, Riley Griffiths, Ryan Lee, Elle Fanning, Kyle Chandler, Noah Emmerich, Gabriel Basso, Zach Mills, Ron Eldard, Glynn Turman, David Gallagher
After months of mysterious and intriguing promotions, forming preconceptions about Super 8 is inevitable. Now that it’s finally arrived, the question is, does it make due on those expectations? Yes and no and that ambiguity is what makes this film so special and effective. Writer, director and producer J.J. Abrams, knows how to build hype and has no trouble handling it thereafter. Super 8 is what we’ve hoped for, but also so much more.
It’s 1979 in the small town of Lillian, Ohio, and Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) and his friends are in the midst of a big production, a zombie film. With Joe on makeup duty, Carey (Ryan Lee) handling the fiery special effects, Preston (Zach Mills) stepping in as a background actor, Martin (Gabriel Basso) playing the detective and Charles (Riley Griffiths) behind the lens, all the boys are missing is their lead actress. That’s where Alice (Elle Fanning) steps in. The group hits the road and heads to the local train station where Charles sees an oncoming train as a timely “production value.” Well, that is until it crashes, kicking off a chain of events involving a complete army takeover of Lillian.
Joe’s dad, Jackson (Kyle Chandler), the town deputy, is forced to deal with the repercussions himself as the accident triggers a series of strange occurrences including missing dogs, appliances and people that send the town into a panic. With no valid explanation, Jackson must investigate himself all while dodging the intrusive and brutal tactics of Colonel Nelec (Noah Emmerich). Meanwhile, Joe and his friends attempt to finish their zombie film with the train crash site and army presence as yet another “production value.” However, those values ultimately lead them straight into an incredibly phenomenal and dangerous situation.
Abrams knows exactly what he’s doing here on every front – the science fiction, the action, the camaraderie, emotion and more, all of which are beautifully layered, creating a tale that satiates by delivering genre expectations, but also expands upon them. We’ve got the members of this group of middle school friends, all of whom have stereotypes yet generally keep them tame enough to give them just enough defining characteristics, without making them lifeless cardboard cutouts. Plus, the youthful cast is just downright fantastic. Apparently, Abrams has an excellent handle on the casting process as well, because he amassed a team of unknown young actors that’s absolutely stellar.
There’s been quite a bit of talk about how Super 8 harbors a hint of The Goonies and there’s certainly no denying the parallel between Courtney and a young Sean Astin as The Goonies’ Mikey. He’s got only the best intentions and with one sweet look, instantly earns your compassion. Joe goes on an intense arc from beginning to end in more ways than one. Not only is Joe on an action-packed adventure and trying to get the girl, but he’s also struggling with best friend woes, one of the most unique and impactful portions of the film; and that’s partially due to Griffiths.
While this is certainly Courtney’s film, he’s got some impressive talent backing him up, the most notable of which is Griffiths. He nails the domineering side of Charles, yet manages to leave just enough breathing room to earn some sympathy. There’s also Lee, who artfully pulls off the comedic relief. Whereas the goofy sidekick can tend to lose him or herself in the gags, Lee pulls through big time delivering some of the film’s best laughs, but also making Cary a secondary character that stands on his own. On the other hand, that’s not the case for Basso or Mills, but that’s simply due to the fact that their parts are just the lesser of the bunch. As for the more familiar face, it should come as no surprise that Fanning is a perfect fit. She’s got a strong dynamic with the group of guys that highlights her character’s tough side yet has no trouble letting that all fade away to deliver an impressively convincing romance with Joe.
In terms of the adults, there are no weak performances; the kids just steal the show. As much as Chandler’s character is an active part of solving this mystery, from the very start the strongest connection is to Joe and his friends and therefore, Joe’s the one you want to explore the story with. This doesn’t mean the adult characters aren’t successful. Abrams appropriately shapes them in a way that puts most of the attention on how they complement the kids, a tactic that keeps them in the spotlight and interesting, yet never pulls the most enjoyable portion of the story out of arm’s reach.
As for the story itself, the only real problem is that there’s so much more to be discovered. The whole concept is so fascinating, you’ll always want to know more. Then again, if Abrams really did divulge every tiny detail, we’d be in for a far longer film. On the other hand, Abram’s choice to not drown the audience in information is quite appropriate for the film’s perilous yet almost fun loving tone.
In all 112 minutes, there is just one thing that inappropriately pulls you out of the film, the lens flares. They’re present throughout the piece, but they’re so intense during the train crash, it’s a little distracting. Rather than being a technique that enhances the moment, my attention drifted to wondering why Abrams opted to use them to such an intense degree. Perhaps this one instance is just a case of Abrams going overboard because elsewhere in the film, they’re used as a slight accent that looks quite beautiful with the palette of the film. It’s an aesthetic addition, so as long as they’re only enhancing the visuals, which are all-around of top-notch quality, they’re useful.
Regardless, Super 8 is what we’ve all been waiting for, but not, all at that same time and that’s what makes it such a special film. After an intense period of puzzling promotions, had Super 8 turned out to be exactly what we expected, that’d be no fun, right? Then again, had it been a film that surprised us by going in an entirely different direction, that also runs the risk of disappointing. Well, what we have here is the perfect blend of the two; a piece that satisfies what we’ve been craving ever since the viral campaign began, yet one that goes in directions we’d never expect.
By Perri Nemiroff