Movie Review: Super 8
The Charlotte Observer
“Super 8” takes its place among the best B-grade science fiction movies of this generation by copying the best of the past 50 years. Writer-director J.J. Abrams scares, tickles and touches us without taking us anywhere we haven’t been before; if there’s such a phrase as “brilliantly conventional,” it applies to this film, where surprises are as rare as dead teenagers in a Steven Spielberg picture.
That analogy applies because Spielberg was one of three producers, and five middle schoolers spend most of this movie in jeopardy of losing their lives. But while fat sheriffs and chatty ladies in hair rollers may get snatched into the sky by the alien arachnid, these likeable children never will. The film marries special effects of the current decade – notably a bone-jarring train wreck – to the safe, conventional mindset of the 1950s.
It takes place halfway between those periods, in the summer of 1979. America is just getting over the nuclear disaster at Three Mile Island, and Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) is just beginning to get used to life without his mom, who died in a steel mill accident. Joe’s dad, Deputy Jackson Lamb (Kyle Chandler), tells his son to keep away from Alice Dainard (Elle Fanning), because he blames Alice’s father (Ron Eldard).
But Joe and Alice have agreed to help Charles (Riley Griffiths) make a zombie movie on Super 8 film for a festival. As they and three friends shoot one night at the edge of town, they watch their science teacher derail an Air Force train with his truck. Their camera captures the reason why, though they don’t find out until three frightening days pass. (Yes, children, that’s how long it once took to develop rolls of movie film.)
Science fiction of 60 years ago usually held metaphors about the Cold War, the dangers of the military-industrial complex or the ways our violent natures prevented worldwide or intergalactic peace.
Abrams has no such agenda. Though an Air Force colonel (Noah Emmerich) is the stone-faced villain, a guy who risks everyone’s lives by his obstinacy, Abrams supplies the stereotype without the hidden meaning. He does the same with other characters: a scientist who repents his participation in government experiments, a damsel in distress, a hero who gets out of predicaments too easily.
You could spend the whole time noting references to films ranging from “Stand By Me” to “E.T.” (The misunderstood alien communicates by touching humans and reading their thoughts.) You could note all the in-joke references to zombie chronicler George Romero, famed makeup artist Dick Smith or Area 47. (The latter is a mash-up of the infamous Area 51 and the number 47, one associated with the “Star Trek” franchise – for which Abrams now directs movies.)
But “Super 8” will work best if you simply ride happily along and smile at the clichés, right down to the stoner who sleeps through the climactic mayhem. Abrams doesn’t expect anything else from you. And if you don’t expect anything else from him, the payoff will be enjoyable indeed.