Rating: SUPER 8/10
J.J. Abrams has a lot on his mind. Starting out his career as an actor in REGARDING HENRY (which he also happened to write as only his second feature), Abrams then broke into producing and has turned everything he’s backed into gold, starting with television series like Alias, Lost, and Fringe. But it wasn’t until MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE III that he started directing features and showed the world that the third film in a series can be its best, and that Tom Cruise can run really, really fast. Then Abrams went on to prove that you don’t have to be a Trekkie to appreciate Star Trek with his super-successful STAR TREK feature reboot. This leads us to now, and to his superb love letter to the late ’70s/’80s-era films of Steven Spielberg and Amblin Entertainment - SUPER 8.
Set in the summer of 1979 in small town Ohio, our story begins with a tragedy. Joe Lamb’s (Joel Courtney) mother has been killed in a work-related accident at the local steel factory, Lillian Steel. We’re not made aware of what exactly has happened, but Joe’s father and the town’s deputy (Kyle Chandler), knows Lillian employee and town drunk Louis Dainard (Ron Eldard) had something to do with it. To keep his mind busy, Joe is helping a group of friends make a zombie film (shot on Super 8 of course) for a local film festival. One night while shooting at a train station, the kids witness a horrific and mysterious train crash and days later, something from the wrecked cargo starts to go bump in the night.
What I like about Abrams is that he can take a cast of almost unknowns and still create some of the best marketing buzz around. This worked for CLOVERFIELD (he produced), and it works for SUPER 8. In order for SUPER 8 to be a success upon its release, its audience has to believe in the friendships within the central group of kids - it needs to feel natural. This is what makes SUPER 8 so rewarding - the chemistry between the pack of kids (I like to refer to them as the Super Squad) is unflinchingly honest when it comes to portraying the friendships you may have had when you were young and the world was full of things that didn’t make sense - earthly or otherwise.
The real charm of SUPER 8 is in watching the kids make their zombie movie - the film within the film if you will. “Director” Charles (Riley Griffiths) takes charge, while Cary (the hilarious Ryan Lee) goofs around like any kid should, while Joe is busy putting makeup on the girl of his dreams, Alice Dainard (the always-wonderful Elle Fanning).
Even though SUPER 8 is an an Amblin film production, it’s still an ode to the company and the feelings its films possess. SUPER 8 is packed with movie geek nostalgia at its best. Abrams pays homage to those films of yesterday with the Spielberg-influenced set design to Michael Giacchino’s very John Williams-esque score, all while putting his own stamp on it with lens flares and a monster.
SUPER 8 is an unconventional monster movie that could still walk on its feet without any paranormal activity involved. What’s special about Amblin sci-fi films is that their focus is geared toward story, rather than violence, gore, and cheap jump scares. There are scares, but our attention remains with the kids and their adventure - think THE GOONIES meets THE MONSTER SQUAD, mixed with the feelings films like E.T. and CLOSE ENCOUNTERS gave you as a kid.
With most summer popcorn flicks you can just shut off your brain and enjoy. Not with an Abrams’ flick - there’s so much going on intellectually that you can’t help but keep those electrons racing while still enjoying what you’re currently seeing. J.J. Abrams proves, once again, that his filmmaking talents are far superior than most of his generation.