By Stacey Harrison
A cinematic valentine of the highest order, Super 8 pays sincere tribute to Steven Spielberg’s lens-flared opuses of the late 1970s and early ’80s while telling a slam-bang story that hits all the right notes.
Director J.J. Abrams perfectly captures the somewhat idealized vision of small-town life that made Spielberg movies like Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial so resonant, painting a picture of a tight-knit community where the kids live their own lives independent of the adults. In this instance, the group of young teenagers we follow in 1979 Ohio are movie fanatics, and it’s during their late-night production of a hard-boiled detective story (for which they use 8mm film) that they witness a spectacular train crash that has implications far beyond the vast chunks of wrecked metal lying on the ground.
To say too much about the nature of what was in that train, and what might have escaped, would be to rob Super 8 of much of its mystery, which is one of its purest joys. It’s handled so well, in fact, that the final reveal can’t help but be a bit of a letdown just by default (and some admittedly sketchy CGI). But suffice to say, if you’ve watched Close Encounters and E.T., you’re on the right track.
What might be notable about Super 8 years from now is the young cast it introduces. Joel Courtney makes his film debut in the lead role of Joe Lamb, the low-key makeup artist harboring a flame for leading lady Alice (Elle Fanning, who continues to distinguish herself beyond being Dakota’s little sister), and Riley Griffiths as Charles, the budding would-be Spielberg (or perhaps Abrams) who pushes the cast of his film to their limits. Other names you might want to remember: Ryan Lee, Gabriel Basso and Zach Mills, who all register far more strongly than your average annoying kid actor.
But like Spielberg (who was flattered enough to sign on as a producer), Abrams doesn’t skimp on the adult roles either. Kyle Chandler plays Joe’s father, and looks like he was teleported directly from a bygone era where the local square-jawed sheriff would fight for his town, even if it meant going up against a huge military/government conspiracy. Ron Eldard is solid as Alice’s dad, who has a story that’s tragic on so many levels. And there was the kick of seeing Glynn Turman, who so memorably came up against some of Spielberg’s Gremlins back in 1984, play a pivotal role.
Perhaps Super 8 relies a bit too much on the Spielberg nostalgia toward the end. The resolution feels a bit rushed, with some nagging logistical questions remaining, but this is a film that takes joy in the story it’s telling and even more in the way it tells it. Unabashed, unironic joy, which is something most CGI-happy films could use more of.
“Super 8” is available starting Nov. 22 on Video On Demand. Check your cable system for availability.
© 2011 Paramount Pictures. Credit: Francois Duhamel