J.J. Abrams Super 8 is an echo. It echoes the innocence of Steven Spielberg’s Amblin films of the 1980s, it echoes the imagined purity of small town America, and it echoes the innocence and coming of age through the lens of aspiring filmmakers. But Super 8 never makes its own noise. While the film manages to capture the fun, adventure, thrills, laughs, and characters of Spielberg’s movies, Super 8 never conjures its own magic.
The film takes place in 1979 in the fictional town of Lillian, Ohio. Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) recently lost his mother in an industrial accident and struggles to connect with his distant father Jackson (Kyle Chandler), a sheriff’s deputy who is a good guy but doesn’t know how to relate to his son. With school out for the summer, Joe and his friends Charles (Riley Griffiths), Martin (Gabriel Basso), Cary (Ryan Lee), and Preston (Zach Mills) work on a zombie movie to enter into a local film fest. Charles asks Alice (Elle Fanning) to act in their movie and Joe clearly has a crush on her, which is problematic since she’s the daughter of Louis Dainard (Ron Eldard), the guy Jackson holds responsible for his wife’s death.
But these personal troubles fade into the background when the group, while shooting a movie near the train tracks, witnesses a massive derailment. Certain charges can be leveled against J.J. Abrams but the man is a master of action. The derailment is the film’s big set piece and it’s absolutely spectacular. It’s loud, hectic, but well-shot and well-edited so you can always follow what’s happening and where characters are in relation to each other.
The kids are told to keep quiet about what they’ve seen by the man who caused the wreck, their science teacher with a secret past, Old Man Woodward (not the movie’s strongest plot point). But Charles’ Super 8 camera was running the whole time and its footage holds the secret to a mysterious creature that is abducting people and their electrical appliances. A suspicious military force led by Commander Nelec (Noah Emmerich) arrives, tries to cover up the incident, and recover what has escaped from a sealed train car.
There are aspects of the film that don’t seem to grab Abrams’ interest (even though he wrote the script). There’s a passion for the action scenes, but he doesn’t seem to enjoy grinding out the plot or adding shading to his adult characters. Where Abrams puts the heart of the film is with his young cast. Together, the kids are wonderful. They come off like friends, they act as you would expect 14-year-old guys to act, and they all have distinct characters although only Joe has a transformative arc, and Courtney does a terrific job in the lead role. He absolutely sells the Joe’s fears, his anger, his shyness, and his eventual courage. The only time when the character falls short is when the writing starts to let him down. While I have no problem with Joe being a hero and a leader, he seems to always solve every mystery and devise every plan. For a movie that wants to call back the group of friends from The Goonies, Abrams would have done well to remember that every character in that movie gets a chance to shine.
The other performer who does outstanding work in Super 8 is Fanning. In some ways, she has to play a wider set of emotions than Joe and she does a great job of balancing a character who is developmentally ahead of the boys, but is still willing to have fun on their level. Fanning and Courtney have great chemistry and more than Joe’s struggle to come to grips with his mother’s death or connecting with his father, his young romance with Alice is the best emotional relationship in the film.
I wish that the other young actors were up to Courtney and Fanning’s level. Granted, the movie doesn’t make a lot of demands from Lee (Cary is fire-obsessed comic-relief, the end) and Basso (Martin is nerdy, the end), but it desperately needed Griffiths to step up. He can play a young teenager naturally enough, but when the script calls on him for comic timing or deeper emotions, his performance becomes uneven. Sometimes he’ll hit his mark and other times his readings come out stilted. Furthermore, when the scene is just Charles and Joe, there’s not much chemistry between the two and you struggle to believe that they’ve been friends since kindergarten.
The decisions behind the film are just as uneven. As I said before, Abrams proves yet again that he can create well-crafted and intense set pieces and the way he uses sound both in action scenes and to build suspense is masterful. There’s a scene that uses the clicking of a gas station meter in such an ingenious manner that I couldn’t help but grin. And, as always, Michael Giacchino provides an outstanding score. His work on Super 8 recalls John Williams but manages to be enough of its own beast that it doesn’t sit in the shadows of Williams’ classic work for Spielberg’s films.
Unfortunately, Abrams has difficulty following Giacchino’s lead. The lens flare that was slightly annoying in Star Trek becomes a serious hindrance in Super 8 because it just cuts the frame in awkward places and serves as a distraction from a story that wants to be grounded in small town Americana and genuine emotions. As for the fantastical elements, there are times when practical effects would have better served the film (especially in close-ups of the creature when it’s not scuttling around), but that’s a minor complaint.
Super 8 is a loving homage to the early directing and producing work of Steven Spielberg. Abrams struggles to evoke a feeling rather than making direct references to E.T., The Goonies, etc. It’s an honorable goal and I respect Abrams for attempting to make a film that stands alongside those beloved movies. When it comes to creating a spectacular action film that’s filled with humor and honest performances he comes close to achieving his goal, but numerous missteps turn inspiration into imitation. It’s a sincere form of flattery, but no one would confuse it for the real thing.