Sometimes, you go to see a film and it doesn’t leave much of an impression on you. Sometimes it’s quite the opposite and you’re left to thinking about the film and the story over and over again. Super 8 – wunderkind director J.J. Abrams’ third feature film (as a director) – is definitely slotted in the latter category! When I first viewed the movie trailer, I instantly thought of Steven Spielberg (who produced the film) meets Stephen King – in the vein of Stand by Me (published as The Body), It, and Hearts in Atlantis (specifically Low Men in Yellow Coats). After seeing the film, my hunch was correct. If you are a fan of Spielberg’s early blockbusters like E.T. or Close Encounters of the Third Kind, or the King’s previously mentioned books, then this is the film to go see!
The friendships in Super 8 are what help make the movie, particularly between friends Preston (Zach Mills), Alice (Elle Fanning), Charles (hidden, Riley Griffiths), Cary (Ryan Lee), Joe (Joel Courtney), and Martin (Gabriel Basso).
What amazed me so much about the story -- set in the 1979 (before cell phones and the internet) -- were the characters; they are so likeable and relatable that it makes it easy for the viewer to take these people to heart. The kid actors are all effective and talented, however their characters still don’t quite reach Goonies status. Nevertheless, they are realistic and fun – especially the lead, Joe (Joel Courtney), Alice (Elle Fanning), and Charles (Riley Griffiths). Be sure to stay during the end credits for the short zombie film the kids were making throughout the movie, which is pure fun (written by the real-life kid actors)! Now, let me take a moment here to completely and shamelessly praise actress Elle Fanning. Big sister Dakota Fanning better watch her back because Elle’s performance in this is phenomenal! She encapsulates both a boy’s first crush as well as that cool, beautiful girl you knew in school, all in one – the kind of girl who talks and you just fall in love with her. Plus, she brings exceptional emotional depth to her character and the film; just watch the scene between Alice and Joe when they are watching old film footage of Joe’s mother – a raw, stirring scene. The heartrending bond that she and Joe have in the film helps the story along to prove that this is more than just some monster flick. As I grow older, I find that my most favorite films are the ones that explore the intricacies of peoples’ connectivity and relationships to one another. For all of its special effects and monster hijinks (like in Cloverfield, Abrams borrows from Spielberg’s Jaws in not showing too much of the monster), Super 8 focuses on relationships; and it is not in some hokey way, but in a way that imbues the film with a kind of magic. It’s that same magic that you feel when you’re a kid and the simplest things in life are what matter most – that magic of innocence, growing up, first love, exploring the world, and standing for what you believe in.
The relationship between Joe (Courtney) and Alice (Fanning), as well as with their dads (Kyle Chandler and Ron Eldard), is what helps make the film so great.
Most of Spielberg’s movies have “daddy issues” where the father of the main character(s) is either dead or has left, and Abrams slightly shifts this theme with having the daddy made a widow (the always-likeable Kyle Chandler) who is estranged from his son Joe and has issues with the town drunk, also Alice’s dad (Ron Eldard). Add in Joe’s crush on Alice plus his growing friendship with the other boys (especially his friend, Charles), and there’s a well-balanced summer blockbuster. This is not one of those “deep meaning” movies either; people die … violently, things blow up (a lot). Considering the other summer releases this year, I believe I’m safe in saying that Super 8 is the summer movie of the year! There is something about this film that makes you want it to last a little longer, but it’s good it did not because then it would risk being too overdone. It is not the story that you want to last so much as it is a peek into the journey of these characters’ lives.
An aspect I really despise as a critic is writing (or telling people) about how good a film is and then those people going in with such high expectations and when I ask them how it was, they say, “It sucked,” or, “It was OK, but I didn’t see why you thought it was so great.” I know what I say is going to set the bar high for most audiences out there, and they might not like it. It doesn’t matter. No matter what you say as a critic, you stand by your claim; my claim is that this is one of the best movies of the year. And with Super 8, the proof is in the story, the direction and the acting.