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.