G3 Review: Super 8

Between outrageous ticket prices and patrons who can’t stop texting/Tweeting/yapping for even two lousy seconds after the lights go down, I’ve often wondered whether it’s still possible to experience child-like joy at the movies. However, my skepticism was no match for the wonderful J.J. Abrams-directed thriller Super 8. It was like time travel. Just seconds into this film, I could feel myself turning back into that 12-year-old girl who was watching E.T. for the first time.

Executive produced by Steven Spielberg, Super 8 is an obvious homage to his late ’70s and ’80s classic films. Though it’s been widely praised, some critics have called it an emotionally manipulative Spielberg knockoff. Well, duh. Expert emotional manipulation is one of Spielberg’s superpowers, and I wouldn’t have him any other way. Abrams proves to be an A-student of Spielberg’s style, but Super 8 stands firmly on its own. It’s a sentimental, affecting, and frequently frightening story with a geeky soul.

It’s 1979, and middle-schooler Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) has just buried his mother, who died on the job at the town steel plant. He’s got a distant relationship with his dad, Jackson (Kyle Chandler), a stoic deputy who isn’t thrilled about his son’s hobby. Joe’s been shooting a zombie movie with a pack of misfits, led by his hilariously loudmouthed friend, Charles (Riley Griffiths). He’s also got an ulterior motive, which is getting close to Alice, the guarded girl next door (Elle Fanning).

This was when a kid could get on a bike and disappear for hours, with no cell phone as a parental GPS, and inhabit a world free of supervision or adult micromanagement. Trust me when I say that Super 8 nails the era, clothes, furniture, and all. Joe’s room is cluttered with Star Wars action figures and other period-appropriate tchotchkes. The movie is blissfully free of the hyper-intelligent, snarky banter that child actors trade in so many modern movies and TV shows.

While the young filmmakers shoot a night scene at the train station, there’s a devastating, metal-twisting crash that leaves hundreds of white, Rubik’s cube-like items on the scorched earth. Charles’ trusty camera is still rolling, and this is where Super 8 takes a turn onto Oh, Snap! Boulevard. The kids are completely freaked out by the incident and its aftermath, but they can’t breathe a word to anyone. Even Joe is forbidden from telling his dad, who soon has the impossible task of reassuring the townsfolk as the disturbances escalate. It’s what we don’t see that scares us most, and I jumped in my seat more than once. Anyone can show a bloodbath, but for genuine chills, nothing beats a shadowy creature behind rustling tree branches.

Super 8‘s real triumph, however, is in its endearing characters. Courtney, who I swear is channeling Henry Thomas from 1982, is teriffic as the vulnerable but spunky Joe. I loved his scenes with Fanning, who plays Alice with such quiet, convincing melancholy. Griffiths steals many a scene as a tyrannical film director-in-training, and the audience laughed every time he opened his mouth.

Friday Night Lights fans already know this, but Chandler should play everyone’s dad in everything. He’s completely believable as a man who’s grieving and overwhelmed, but will be damned if he lets anyone see it. Chandler’s weary, WTF? demeanor throughout Super 8 reminded me very much of (Spielberg reference!) Roy Scheider’s Police Chief Brody in Jaws.

I’m not going to give away the mystery of the white cubes or what dragged that poor, screaming sap through a convenience store window. Cinematic things that go bump in the night are best experienced firsthand, and Super 8 serves its fright with a nostalgic side of sweetness. Savor it, and make sure you stay for the closing credits.

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10 thoughts on “G3 Review: Super 8

  1. Okay… I had no idea what the film was about before this, so thank you. Sounds like it’s worth catching, if only because you’ve got me wondering about those damn white cubes! Revisiting the 80’s might be fun, too, although it wasn’t a good period for me, on the whole.

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  2. I’ve still got my Stormtrooper, my first SW figure, packed away somewhere. Pack rat, go figure.

    Is it kid-friendly? I haven’t seen the rating for it yet. I’ll definitely bring Boy with me, but should I leave the 11 year old at home? Great review btw E. I’m thinking you two missed a collective calling with this movie review thing.

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  3. Mark, I assure you that the ’80s were not my best years, but the movie reminded me of how magical childhood CAN be. It might be a bit sappy for your taste, and keep in mind that I’m a softy. I’d love to know what you think, though. CD, I struggled with whether to take my 11-year-old, but after seeing it solo, I’d say there are few scenes that are probably too intense. It depends on the kid, but I’d give it at least another year – especially since things are exaggerated on a big screen. And thank you for saying such nice things about my review. I have a few arts critic friends, and I’ve learned a lot from them.

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  4. Great review, E! While it won’t be the blockbuster that everyone was expecting, I think time will be more than kind to ‘Super 8’.

    And if I must say, you hit the nail on the head with this:
    ‘The movie is blissfully free of the hyper-intelligent, snarky banter that child actors trade in so many modern movies and TV shows.’

    That was one of the refreshing parts about it. Very few kids are that smart, sassy and/or world weary. You can tell that it’s an adult writing how cool they wished they sounded at 12. And even though Spielberg kids have always been a bit too precocious upon reflection, they always seemed like real kids to a degree. Super 8 had that in spades. Fanning was enchanting in her scene at the train depot. And Joel Courtney was fantastic.

    I just might see it again on an off-peak day.

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  5. Stupid Netflix Canada doesn’t have Jaws yet. Oh sure they’ll give us every single Seagle and Van Damme movie but classics like Jaws and Close Encounters? Pfft. Anyways, what was I…oh, plan to see Super 8 next Tues. More excited after reading your review.

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  6. Thank you, Adrian! I’ve considered seeing it again, and I’m most definitely buying the DVD. David, no “Jaws” or “Close Encounters of the Third Kind?” What the hey?! Well, I hope you enjoy Super 8, and please tell me what you think!

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  7. One of my friends said his son told him it was great and called it the “Goonies of the 2000’s”. That’s a pretty tall order, but I’m thinking I have to see it now just to see if it lives up to all the positive reviews I’m hearing.

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  8. Erika, I’m with you on this, I just watched the movie a few days ago with my wife and I’m sorry but I SWEAR i felt like I was watching ET again for the first time. I was LITERALLY on the edge of my seat a majority of the movie. AMAZING movie and I loved the whole story especially with the kids. It really felt like ET meets The Goonies to me. I loved it.

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