Set in 1979 and starring a few teenagers, Super 8 essentially functions as a love letter to ’80s Spielberg movies. For all its mystery, trio of overarching plots, special effects, etc., it mostly just wants its audience — and in particular the audience members who were this age at this time — to remember how fondly they love movies like E.T., Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Jaws. The E.T. parallels are likely the most obvious. But, folks? Isn’t it just easier and a better time to just re-watch those movies?
Okay, so the main plot revolves around the aforementioned teenagers shooting an amateur zombie movie. One scene is set by train tracks, and when a train passes, it derails and a certain something is released. It’s just some big alien thing. Spoiler alert. The government is brought in to try to contain the situation, as well as keep both the characters and the audience in the dark, while the kids try to figure out what’s going on, and eventually save one of their own after she is captured by the creature.
The lead is 14-year-old Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney), whose father (Kyle Chandler) is the town’s Sheriff and whose role in the amateur film is to do the makeup. The director of this zombie movie is Charles (Riley Griffiths), and as such is the controlling member of the group. About the only other important character whose name I can remember is “The Girl,” in this case named Alice (Elle Fanning). Joe and Alice have a mutual attraction that is noticeable from the first time they are on-screen together.
I’m usually at the front of the line when we’re criticizing child actors in movies. It’s so rare that we get a good one, let alone multiple in a single film. The most surprising thing about Super 8 is that one child performance is good enough carry the rest of them. Elle Fanning delivers a heartfelt and star-making turn in this film. It’s good enough to both make the rest of the child actors look terrible by contrast, as well as make that previous statement redundant by just being that good.
Interestingly, director J.J. Abrams is much better at handling the scenes of the children than, sadly, everything else. When it’s the kids on-screen, either running around trying to solve a mystery, filming their zombie movie, or just talking, Super 8 is quite the success. The acting doesn’t matter when everything else about their scenes is so good. Thematically the film is strong, the characters are written well and with depth, and the childlike awe is shared between both the kids and the audience. That’s the feeling the entire production wants you to have, but it only really comes through during certain moments.
The rest of the film deals with this loose alien, the government’s attempt to cover it up, and Joe’s father’s quest to … also solve it, but by himself because he’s a big tough Sherrif man who don’t need no darn kids messin’ things up. Er, I meant to say — actually, that’s exactly it. He has issues with people, including his child and Alice’s father, and likes to work solo. I guess there’s nothing wrong with that.
These parts of Super 8 don’t work nearly as well. There are few characters to care about or get attached to, the individual scenes themselves aren’t particularly tense or thrilling, and there’s nothing going on intellectually. The problem with this is that they seem to take up an increasingly large amount of time. While the first half is mostly focused on the kids, the second half relegates them to less important roles and we find out that all of the mysteries the filmmakers were hiding from us were ultimately not big enough reveals to justify all that teasing.
Thanks to some tricky cinematography and a penchant for hiding things — important or not — from the audience, only a minimal amount of special effects had to be used for Super 8. And with child actors filling most of the large roles, the budget could be kept down. The special effects do look good, when they’re finally a prominent factor, and the alien-thing in particular looks great. Is the film worth seeing for its effects? No, but at least they’re good if you happen to be bored by the time they crop up.
What you do want to see is The Case, which is the short film that the kids were making when the whole alien incident occurred. You get to see the finished production at the end credits, and it’s worth checking out. Maybe not by sitting through the entirety of Super 8, but the five-minute short film is worth watching at some point. Maybe it’ll wind up on YouTube one day. It might even already be there.
Super 8 wants to be a throwback and an homage to Spielberg movies from the ’80s, and approaches its subject matter with childlike abandon. When it focuses on its child characters, this approach is effective and the sense of awe and nostalgia it generates is fantastic. Unfortunately, the longer it runs, the more it tends to focus on its mysteries and its adults, and it seems to lose all of its purpose and subtext. It becomes generic and not terribly interesting. If you grew up in the ’80s, or are currently in your younger teenage years, Super 8 will appeal to you. For anyone else? It’s not worth the time.