It’s been some time since anyone made a film like this. Even Steven Spielberg (who director J.J. Abrams is copying very closely) has not been involved in anything like Super 8 since the early 1990s. But watching the film, I finally figured out why those blockbusters of the past have stood the test of time. The best aspect was about the relationship the children have with each other. They are not idealized, in the way that most directors try to look at childhood. According to the Disney Channel, childhood is some sort of happy, care free time. The children in Super 8 swear, break the rules, frequently clash with their siblings, and stand up to their parents…just like real kids. It was true in E.T. , it was true in The Goonies, and it’s true in Super 8.
And in Super 8, they are making a movie that somehow mirrors what is happening around them. Filmmaking, by its nature, does tap into childhood very easily (let’s face it, Hollywood pays adults millions of dollars to play pretend). And everything about this film was done to evoke those child like emotions. The camera is placed low (to help audiences relate to the children) the images and locations are rendered and observed how a child observes them (certain items, like candy, are given attention over other things). Watching it, I truly felt as though I was back in the theater as a child, watching amazing things and awesome sights. This is the perfect summer film, one in that evokes that sense of wonder that Spielberg used to do.
The film, which takes place in 1979, involves a group of five or so children shooting a zombie movie. One of the children, Joe (Joel Courtney) lost his mother to a recent steel mill accident. The film’s director, Charles (Riley Griffiths) hires Alice (Elle Fanning, Dakota Fanning’s younger sister) to play the “wife” in his film. One evening, when they all sneak out to shoot a scene at a train stop, they witness a massive train collision. Following this accident, the Air Force shows up, led by Colonel Nelick (Noah Emmerich) and Joe’s father Jackson Lamb (Kyle Chandler) tries to find out what is causing the mysterious disappearances and blackouts throughout town.
There are a variety of approaches I can take with this film. There are a variety of approaches anyone can take. That is one of the beauties of Super 8 – many people will find different things to enjoy about it. Some will greatly enjoy the special effects, others will enjoy the action in the third act.
My personal favorite is still the characterization of children in the first act. Most of the actors have never been in a film before, but you would not know that watching it. These actors manage to develop a chemistry that some adults cannot do. Even those actors whose characters who are underdeveloped (one child is only known for his love of fireworks, another vomits quite a bit) use everything at their disposal. By the end, there is not one character who feels unnecessary. The film was already great before the plot really set in motion – it could have just been a coming of age story about those kids.
These opening scenes were the most important part of the film, and the one that makes the rest of the pieces come together. Everything before the train accident has a sort of innocence about it. It is the sort of rural every town that Frank Capra would create if he were alive today. The camera work is inventive, and the villains well-defined – mostly because the Air Force presence remains mysterious. I did not believe that Colonel Nelec was evil – merely doing a job. Of course it doesn’t excuse his actions, but it does help to explain them.
Also, I don’t want to say too much, but I will say that the themes involving the “monster” are well thought out. Like the Frankenstein monster, he is merely….misunderstood. It turns the film away from the typical loud blockbuster, in which creatures like this exist only for people to kill them in the most spectacular way possible. Personally, if a giant creature were ever discovered, I would want to properly examine it rather than torture it for the sake of my masculinity. Also, the encounter of Joe and the Monster at the end of the film is more awe-inspiring than anything that has come in a Michael Bay film.
Now, the one complaint I have about the film is how it does not keep its focus in the way E.T. did. Too many times, the film veers into the world of adults, having them discuss the plot and explain what is happening. It would have been better to have had these conversations over heard and the audience to remain in step with the kids, rather than a half a step in front. I know this is challenging, but…Steven Spielberg managed to make it look effortless, and we apparently like him.
Still, a minor point, but one that prevents the film from achieving the level of quality that it wants. It tried to be a legendary film out of the gate, rather than one whose legend builds (do you think Spielberg went into E.T. thinking he was crafting one of the greatest films of all time?). But Super 8 does enough things right to make it one of the best summer films in some time.
Think of one of your favorite films as a child. Remember the first time you saw it, and all of the emotions that ran through you. Super 8 will bring back those feelings. It is probably going to end up being the most memorable film of this year. Go see it immediately.