Super 8 (2011) – Directed by J.J. Abrams – Starring Joel Courtney, Elle Fanning, Kyle Chandler, Riley Griffiths, Ryan Lee, Amanda Michalka, Glynn Turman, Noah Emmerich, and Ron Eldard.
Critics have rightly noted the similarities between J.J. Abrams SUPER 8 and many of the classic films in the Steven Spielberg (E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, most prominently), but the film also brought me back to the Three Investigators mysteries, to Encyclopedia Brown, to Scooby Doo. This is a monster movie but it’s a monster movie about solving a mystery, about kids being smarter than adults give them credit for being, about kids wanting a better connection with their parents than they have.
It’s that last point that really elevates SUPER 8 from being merely a fun, nostalgic romp for those of us who grew up with Spielberg, on the “wrong” side of cool, and WLVI’s Creature Double Feature and into a special film in its own right.
The story centers on Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney), a kid in small town Ohio, whose mom recently passed away, whose dad isn’t a very good dad, and who’s coping by helping his friend Charles (Riley Griffiths) make a zombie movie. I love the passion Charles has for his film and the way all of his friends are committed to the cause. They sneak out in the middle of the night to do their filming, a wonderful nod to how parents never seem to pay attention to their kids in stories like this.
Charles has convinced Alice Dainard (Elle Fanning) to be in his movie and she picks them up in her dad’s car and takes them to the train station, where they’re filming for the night. Elle Fanning is really quite amazing in the film. When she does her first scene and blows the guys away with her acting ability, it is something to behold – you can see the guys both falling in awe of her and being intimidated by her. They spot a train approaching and Charles wants them to start filming immediately to take advantage of it. “Production values!” he yells, worried about how his film is going to go in an upcoming competition. As they’re filming the scene for real, the train rushes past and Joe (who’s the sound guy in addition to being the make-up artist) turns away from the scene to follow the train. He sees a pickup truck hurtle onto the train tracks and wreck the train.
What follows is the single greatest train crash I’ve ever seen on film. I’m not drunk on hyperbole. This train wreck is simply epic. It’s a loud, angry, snarling, exploding mass of metal and fire. The kids take off running and the train comes crashing down all around them. Once the wrecking stops and the kids have checked to make sure they’re all good, they find that the guy who drove the truck is a teacher at their school. Dr. Woodward (Glynn Turman) used to work for the military and he wrecks the train to let the monster out.
That’s right – SUPER 8 is a monster movie, but it’s a monster movie in the vein of Alien, Cloverfield and The Troll Hunter, which is to say that while there’s a monster here, the emphasis is on the characters and the monster stays largely hidden. I think if I had to high concept SUPER 8, I’d say it’s Stand by Me meets Cloverfield because of its emphasis on the young kids figuring out the mystery. It’s so nice to see a monster movie played more for the mystery than the monster. SUPER 8 treats these kids – really, Joe and Alice – as really smart kids. They’re not perfect but they are smart, well-rounded, emotional beings and it’s their relationship that makes SUPER 8 such a great movie.
Joe and Alice aren’t supposed to hang out because Joe’s mom died in a freak factory accident when she was filling in for Alice’s dad. Alice’s father Louis (Ron Eldard) is a drunk and a screw up and Joe’s dad Jack (Kyle Chandler) is the straight-laced deputy sheriff. They’re opposites but they both insist their kids have nothing to do with one another. It’s a bit heavy-handed and if the emphasis was on the parents it might rob the film of some of its magic; the focus is on Joe and Alice, though, and how this shared tragedy affects them. There’s a scene about midway through the film (after we’ve heard the obligatory “stay away from that kid” speech from both Louis and Jack) where Alice sneaks over to Joe’s house and climbs into his room. They hang out, watching an old film reel of Joe’s mom and the truth comes out from Alice that it was her dad’s shift that Joe’s mom was taking on the day of the accident.
Fanning and Courtney are really great together. Alice says she sometimes wishes it was her dad that died that day, and it’s such a powerful line because not only does she harbor some guilt over Joe’s mom’s death, but her dad is such a drunk jerk that her line has all the pathos of a kid struggling with the fact that her parent isn’t perfect and can say hyperbolic things. Amazingly, Joe catches this and tells her not to wish that because, “he’s your dad.” The kid who’s missing his mom knows in ways that Alice doesn’t (even though she’s missing a parent, too) that you need to appreciate your parents because they’re your parents.
While all of this is happening, the monster is on the loose and the military is clamping down. Joe’s dad is much more comfortable being the deputy sheriff thrust into a leadership role than he is being a dad, which again allows Joe the freedom to do what he does in the movie. Jack drops into Joe’s life on occasion to issue orders, but Joe realizes that listening to these commands isn’t what’s best for him, so he keeps making the movie and keeps hanging out with Alice.
The monster ends up not being a monster, at all, but an alien that’s been trapped and abused by the American military. Dr. Woodward wasn’t trying to wreck the train, but let the alien free. I love the scene in the school when the kids are going through all of his notes and film; this is the big infodump moment when we find out the true back story of the film, and I love that the kids find this material and then figure the mystery out because they’re smart.
The final act centers on Joe’s drive to rescue Alice from the alien’s clutches, and his showdown with the alien is pretty darn great. Joe rescues Alice by using his brain, and then “defeats” the alien through an emotional appeal. It’s important that the film offers a non-violent solution to the problem given how anti-military the film has been, and SUPER 8 delivers the appropriate ending.
All told, SUPER 8 is a simply wonderful, highly enjoyable film. It’s got it all – it’s a monster movie that’s really a mystery that’s really a drama about kids and their parents. There’s great action, plenty of humor, great characters, and a decent monster. Good stuff.