Because summer blockbusters tend to cater towards mass audience appeal, they run the risk of being dumbed-down roller coaster rides and/or special effects extravaganzas. Too often, scripts, acting, and overall film-making, get thrown under the train of the studio system, creating a final product that is only a product, and not a movie. However, every once in a awhile comes along a film that is able to deliver thrills and laughs, while still maintaining a sense of integrity. I’m talking about a movie that has genuine fun with itself, yet is also wonderfully made on nearly every level. Well, in 2011 audiences were given J.J. Abrams’ Super 8.
It is the summer of 1979, and a group of kids team together to make a homemade zombie flick for a film festival. Our protagonist is Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney), a 13 year old whose mother has recently died in a factory accident. Following his friends’ cinematic effort, Joe is put in charge of makeup, and is soon smitten with Alice Dainard (Elle Fanning), the zombie movie’s lead actress. While shooting a scene using a Super 8 camera, the crew witnesses a horrific train crash, setting off a chain of events. Pretty soon, mysterious things start happening around town, and it doesn’t take long for the military to get involved…
The child actors shine bright like the sun on a cloudless day; in fact, they outshine the adults by a considerable margin. Not for a long time have I been so floored by a film’s acting, which is incredible here. This is Joel Courtney’s first role, and he makes for an extremely compelling lead. Fanning is brilliant as well, as the love interest, and simply knocks her performance out of the park. Courtney, Fanning, and the rest of the youthful actors have the promise of strong careers ahead of them, and deservedly so. The weaknesses and strengths of childhood are captured marvelously here; these children may have trouble making adults understand them, but they’re smart and tough and full of passion. While Kyle Chandle, who plays Joe’s dad, is pretty good, he (and every other grown-up here) is outclassed in a satisfying way. After all, Super 8 is as much of a coming of age story as it is a monster movie.
In fact, the subplot involving a monster is just a MacGuffin. It works as a plot device to explore the drama and humor of the film’s characters, and for that reason it is fairly straightforward and undeveloped. Anyone who focuses most of his/her attention upon the sci-fi elements is missing the point of this movie. Because we are so emotionally invested in the characters, each and every action sequence carries weight, and a genuine sense of danger. The action is all about character development, not about showcasing some arbitrary creature. Abrams directs with enough intensity to bring thrills and chills, while still giving each scene its own arc.
Surprisingly, it is the moments when the film isn’t sentimental, where it has the biggest heart. Emotionally manipulative scenes are far and few, but when they come onscreen they feel like overkill. In fact, the one area where the movie falls a little short is its last five minutes or so. The ending is very contrived, and managed to disappoint me for the first (and only) time during my viewing experience. However annoying it may be, though, it definitely does not ruin the film as a whole, and is redeemed by a genius end-credits sequence.
Super 8 is classic film-making at its best. J.J. Abrams directs some phenomenal young actors and actresses in this strongly scripted portrait of creative youth, which also happens to be a blast.