As wonderful as nostalgia can be, is it able to support an entire film? If that’s the question raised most by J.J. Abrams’ Super 8, then the answer is a resounding yes. Thankfully, the film is far superior than that. Just last week in my June preview I also pondered what Abrams can bring to the big screen working from a totally original idea. Coming from the man who brought us the likes of TV’s Felicity, Alias, Lost, and Fringe; and the man who brought us such cinematic endeavors as Mission: Impossible III and Star Trek; along with co-writing Joy Ride and Armageddon; it should come as no surprise to find Super 8 to be his crowning achievement. It’s also coincidentally, one of the best, if not the best film of 2011 thus far.
A lot of comparisons have been getting thrown around lately about Super 8 and they’re all pretty sound. Everything from Stand By Me meets Jurassic Park to “this generation’s Goonies.” All are fairly reasonable considering it’s about an eclectic group of friends dealing with possibly-extraterrestrial occurrences in their small Ohio town. But for me, the film more stands out comparable to Joe Dante’s Explorers; perhaps at least in tone (that is until the kids head into space). This group of friends are really only in a few scenes together and Abrams smartly focuses more on the friendship between Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) and Charles (Riley Griffiths), Joe and Alice Dainard (Elle Fanning), and the relationship between Joe and his father Deputy Jackson Lamb (Kyle Chandler). Unsurprisingly they have a single parent relationship with Steven Spielberg pulling the producer strings and Abrams touting this as an homage to the early 80’s Spielberg brand of family films when Amblin Entertainment meant everyone was in for a treat.
Super 8 opens with Joe and Jackson dealing with the passing of mother and wife Elizabeth (Caitriona Balfe) after she’s crushed in an industrial accident at the local steel mill where she filled in that morning for Louis Dainard (Ron Eldard), Alice’s father. Joe carries around a locket Jackson gave Elizabeth the day he was born and hangs out with his friends making super 8 home movies for a local film festival in Cleveland, but all Jackson wants to do is send Joe away for six weeks to baseball camp. It’s only when Joe, along with Charles, Cary (Ryan Lee), Preston (Zach Mills), Martin (Gabriel Basso), and underage driver Alice go off to shoot a train sequence where all hell breaks loose.
If you’ve seen the teaser trailer you may think you’ve seen the train wreck already. But nothing can prepare you for the full length version of that sequence. Thankfully, Abrams is not a purveyor of 3-D and the film is not converted, otherwise this would never have paid off as suspenseful or frightening as it does. You always have a sense of direction in the action and some of it is pulled off in what appears to be single takes. Abrams and Spielberg set out to show what could be accomplished using a mere $45 million budget and it has paid off beautifully. Also, the film is chock-full of yummy Easter eggs that just beg for multiple viewings. I seriously cannot wait to see this film again! Be sure to stick around for the end credits for a fantastic payoff scene.
Here’s a film where every single element comes together in ways we haven’t seen in family entertainment in far too long. The poignancy never comes off as forced, the relationships seem real, and even the requisite love story comes off as believable. Most adults could only dream of having the chemistry that sparks between Joe and Alice. Meanwhile, Abrams pulls off another feat of never oversexualizing any of this either. You always believe you’re watching real kids, sometimes in real danger, and thanks to his talented team of young actors we buy every minute of it. And even the transition of Jackson from suppressed, grieving, confused father to man of action comes through in a moment of hilarious fashion. And Super 8 also brings us the most touching analogy of letting go seen in who knows how long.
Bravo to everyone from Abrams, Spielberg, and the entire cast. Even the little things, like posters on Charles’s walls for Halloween and Dawn of the Dead, are tiny pieces that takes things to the next level. Those are the types of films I was in love with in junior high too and to this day my all-time favorite movie is and will forever be Spielberg’s own Jaws. Even the score by Michael Giacchino only further proves my own belief that he’s the second coming of John Williams. And finally, harkening back to the heyday of the already mentioned Goonies, Stand By Me, and Explorers, crossing with Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T., with just the right dash of Monster Squad, Cloverfield and Jurassic Park is one thing. But hats off to Abrams and company for pulling it off and giving us the best film the 80s never gave us.
Photos courtesy Paramount Pictures