Redacted review. Originally posted on June 11th, 2011.
Tenderness is what makes Steven Spielberg’s earlier films so venerable. Whether it’s the films he’s directed (i.e. E.T.) or produced (The Goonies), Spielberg has undeniably been attached to terrific stories that are able to earn their emotional vouchers from filmgoers. By having a keen sense of emotion and childhood nostalgia, it’s easy to see why many people hold Spielberg in such a high regard. If there was ever a prime example of a filmmaker emulating the master known as Spielberg, it would be JJ Abrams. Not counting Mission Impossible III, Abrams has slowly built up a filmography (and even his foray into television) that deftly blends summer action with a heart that resonates with critics and audiences alike. Whether it’s his watchful eye as producer over the likes of Lost and Cloverfield, or his sharp directorial vision behind Star Trek, Abrams is a man who understands how to tell a story. And what a story he tells with his latest endeavor Super 8.
Super 8 is a throwback film of sorts. More specifically, it’s a film that generously harkens back to Spielberg’s E.T. Boy encounters otherworldly being, develops a relationship with said being amidst a governmental sweep, and boy finds a harmonious balance in his life as he helps his intergalactic friend escape the oppression of science and control. This plot line doesn’t represent the finer details of Super 8, but it represents the films broader schema. We open on Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney), a kid trying to work through the loss of his mother and the growing pains of adolescence. His father, Jackson Lamb (Kyle Chandler), is an emotionally reserved all-American man who is the deputy of Lillian, Ohio. Determined to fight for his fellow citizens at the expense of his relationship with his son, Jackson fails to realize the hobbies that make his son tick. One said personal pastime is an interest in the construction of models (cars, trains, figures, etc.) and the crafting of films. Even more so, Joe has an assortment of friends who feed into one another’s hobbies, a notion that escapes Mr. Lamb. Nonetheless, on a fateful night, where Joe and his team of filmmakers look to spruce up their film’s production value by filming on location at a train stop, Joe meets his E.T. (albeit in a more sinister and distant way) and comes to know Alice (Elle Fanning), the girl who has ignited his boyhood crush.
In a scene filled with bravura filmmaking and intense special effects, Joe and his friend’s lives are put at risk when an Air Force branded train derails, wreaking havoc on the empty Ohio landscape. Escaping from the wreck is a mysterious creature that immediately draws military attention upon the disaster area and Joe’s team of teens. Soon Joe is not only searching for clues about what it was that happened with the train, but he’s also venturing into uncharted territory: romance. Through governmental turmoil, family strife, blossoming love and growing issues with his best friend, Joe emphatically buys into the fact that an otherworldly creature stalks his town, and he aims to address this issue in one way or another. What stems from this are set pieces that are nostalgic, action driven, and encapsulated by pleasing sentimentality. A lot of credit has to go to JJ Abrams, who’s more than able to take his beautiful script and transpose it to live action without being overtly transparent.
Despite his fascination with lens flares, Abrams’ vision is vibrant, youthful and endearing, as he fills the stench of summer with a breath of fresh air. His interest in the wondrous manifests itself in the film’s teen characters that joyously deliver performances that will surely make the less callous reminisce about their youth. The teens, played by relatively unknowns outside of Elle Fanning, do a terrific job bantering and fraternizing honestly amidst demonstrative chaos and teen bewilderment. Their palpable chemistry fuels the film’s thrilling drama, leaving us entrenched in the actions of our vivacious characters. We care for them, thus we care for their safety and well-being, especially when a misunderstood monster concocts a path of destruction. Super 8 grasps our empathy through the acting, Abrams’ deft showmanship, and the universal themes that are on display. I don’t hesitate when I say that Super 8 is a story that movie goers desperately needed this summer. Part mystery, perhaps in the same vein as Spielberg’s Close Encounters, part monster film (think Cloverfield) and part coming of age tale, Super 8 has everything that made Spielberg’s films from the late 70’s and early 80’s age gracefully. Although the film honors Spielberg, it defiantly stakes Abrams’ place as a storyteller.