SUPER 8 Review

     June 9, 2011


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.

Rating: B-

Around The Web
  • Michael

    That’s too bad about Super 8. It’s even worse that I got the same feeling watching the trailer. It seemed very derivative and almost hollow. I’ll wait to rent it.

    • Wolstenholme

      You’ll be making a big mistake then. I just got back from my local midnight premiere and it was fantastic, barely noticed a single lens flair. Of course it’s no Close Encounters of the Third Kind but it was a really great movie…and that’s hard to come by these days.

      P.S. F*ck you Matt

      • dannyboy3030

        This is the funniest post script of all time.

        P.S. I have no problems with Matt

      • Miles Bennett Dyson

        Matt’s a jerkoff, but hes a lovable jerkoff…

  • Jill Kennedy

    There is a big difference between the childhood of Steven Spielberg and the childhood of J.J. Abrams. Spielberg lived that sort of latch key kid life – J.J. Abrams grew up in Hollywood with successful Hollywood parents – so he lived that lifestyle only through movies. Because of this, I think Super 8 will be lacking in true emotion and only have movie emotion. That said, I look forward to seeing it.

    Here is a fantastic review from my favorite Finnish film reviewer attempting to write (badly) in English.

    • Strong Enough

      good point.

  • David Con

    What about the monster?
    Was the worth seeing? and What about the ending?
    Cause my friends and I were waiting for this review, and theres nothing here about either of these too.

    • sense 11

      I don’t know, perhaps they are trying not to ruin the movie for everyone by giving away spoilers. Ya think friendo

    • Cartouche

      I agree with you.

      This is a monster movie and you hardly mention THE MONSTER!!

      We are not asking for details but give us something for F%^k sake..

      Was it cool? Was it another Cloverfield? Did J.J. Abrams redeem himself for Cloverfield? How does it compare to other monster movies? This is all stuff we should have expected but no we get, poor direction but good set pieces in this review.
      I wasnt even expecting a positive review but I was at least expecting a review.

      This “review” was lazy and felt like it was meant for people in “the business”. In all reality who cares about lens flares and cut shots other than people who are TOO involved.

      It seems as if you had the notion of picking apart this movie before you went in and let those “little things” ruin it for you. Then later you have the gull to say you were nitpicking the CGI of the monster..

      I am huge fan of the site and usually really like the reviews but with all the hype around this movie your review went in a whole other direction and really excluded the slightly above average fan.

  • Ethan

    I’m not sure how many more years we’ll have to wait in order for CGI to become so advanced we can’t tell the difference in still scenes but more projects need to use practical effects! Part of my problem with Green Lantern is how much CGI they used in contrast with some of the practical effects. Everyone touts Avatar as the end all be all of CGI but every person capable of normal sight can tell the difference between CGI and practical.

    • Negro

      Glad to find an individual who recognizes what many people ignore. It saddens me that horrible CG ruins a movie now a days. I have seen a number of films that just suck the tension right out of a scene when ones suspension of disbelief is challenged by an effect that could have been done practically.

  • Rohan

    I am not surprised at all by reading a review from COLLIDER.COM. I mean it was you guys who bashed Christopher Nolan, right? After his INCEPTION was released last year.

    The only thing that I like about COLLIDER.COM is the coverage that you guys provide, but again that coverage is courtest of Hollywood Reporter and

    But you guys trying to do a good job. And, I am not impressed by this review at all. I will be watching the film. And my advice is for other users here to do NOT listen what this so called review is saying. Go watch the film. None of these writers on this are are filmmakers or screenwriters or even visionaries.


    • Manny

      Then what the fuck are you doing here?

      • shaunx

        STFU !!! Nanny ..

  • Hannah Torres

    Director Ewing Miles Brown says Sam Botta has lost 74 lbs (now 150 lbs.) for Movie Tech Studios pre-production of “Live Fearless” Sam Botta Hosts the upcoming reality TV show. :) in Pre-Production now with guests like Betty White, who says “Appreciate life while it’s happening!” Also “get over it” (referring to aging) and “I’m swimming as fast as I can” in reference to her work.

    • Kal

      Hannah Torres, please just fuck off, no-one gives a shit about sam botta and all that bullshit you keep repeating in post after post. Please Go Away.

  • Lance

    I have seen the movie, and I can say that if you’re expecting Transformers level chaos and a mind-blowing creature that you couldn’t have dared to have dreamed to have imagined, then this movie isn’t for you. BUT if you ever tried to make a movie with an old film or video camera as a kid, if you remember movies like “Stand By Me” and “ET” fondly, then you really might like this.

  • sense 11

    Thanks for the opinion. I’m still going to see it tho. Abraham’s has won my allegiance with his past work.

  • DES

    Looks like a modern version of Forbidden Planet monster, invisible, with kids making a movie out of it. Another rehash, albeit, well executed.

    Well, both Start Trek and Mission Impossible have made me want my money back from JJ. They both got ruined in their essence. Deep Impact is better than Armageddon. I just don’t know why his films are not emotionally sticky. I hope he doesn’t soon turn in to M. Night version of action flick filmmaker. Another single note filmmaker M. Night has become, requiring him to back to film school, if need be.

  • Bub Rub

    Just saw it at a midnight screening. I see where Matt is coming from with the overly nostalgic bit, but honestly it didn’t matter because the actors, story, and action were so damn good. Sure, JJ lays on the Spielberg vibe pretty thick and its very similar to Jaws, ET, and Close Encounters, but thats really not a bad thing. Those were awesome movies and Super 8 perfectly captures the suspense and feeling of those movies. you can’t help but grin at the screen when you’re not on the edge of your seat.

    Also, for everyone who’s been asking about the monster, you see plenty of it so don’t worry, no cloverfield BS here. can’t recommend highly enough. stay for the credits to watch the full zombie movie the kids made. A+ (from someone who hated Mission Impossible 3 and Star Trek)

  • chris

    i disagree sometimes with matt’s reviews but i think collider is a great site. i have only followed collider for a little over a month and i can tell by matt’s reviews whether i will like a movie or not. You can see his writing style and he longs for movies that were as epic as the ones he saw when he was younger … which are very few and far between.

    just because you disagree with Matt doesn’t mean his reviews don’t hold value.

  • rlp2451

    For once, I would like to see a Sci-fi movie live up to it’s hype.

    This is not it.

    The preview shots never make it to the movie, which is nearly unforgivabel, since you are waiting for it throughout the whole thing (the turning of the wheel on the rail car).

    This is Cloverfield meets ET meets Friday Night Lights – sullen idiotic adults, too-clever kids (some badly miscast, whom I shall not mention but her initials are EF), and really plotless movie-making.
    Even in the late ’70s, which this movie purportedly is supposed to have taken place, there would be so much media attention and no references to “Soviet takeovers.”

    And I really want the lipstick franchise for the next JJ Abrams kids/ movie. I could make a fortune.

  • junierizzle

    I agree with MATT. This movie just did not work. This is coming from someone who loves Abrams work and SUPER 8 was the movie I wanted to see the most. I think Matt is being too generous with the B- grade. I’d give it a D. I won’t give it an F because I was never bored.

    Just because a movie makes you feel nostalgic does not make it a good movie.

    And the Creature design was one of the worst I have ever seen.

  • Liam

    screw you, matt. you provide great coverage, but you don’t need to give you god dmn opinion on everything you write about!

  • DigDugYoMamma

    What a cynical piece of bullshit, and by that I mean the review. People have have warped so much by nonstop special effects and explosions that they don’t care about the story. I just came back from seeing Super 8 and it was fantastic. Yes Abrams did his best to recreate the innocence of Spielberg movies, but there was a darkness to it. The kids saw death firsthand. But Abrams also used a technique that worked so well in Stephen King novels all these years: the monster isn’t necessarily the scariest thing in town. Death and estranged relationships can do more harm than an alien. The monster is the device to get the characters past their faults and toxic relationships. If you have a short attention span go Tweet, listen to your Ipods or go see Transformers. Leave the movies with storylines to those of us who get.

    • junierizzle

      Actually this is a perfect movie for people WITH short attention spans. I think you were blinded by the nostalgia, dude. Underneath your memories of Goonies and ET lies a pretty lame story.

      You can’t try and make a classic movie. It either becomes one or it doesn’t.

      • kungfukid

        when is being nostalgiac, bad? if it gives you a great time at the movies. honestly folks, sometimes we feel like we’re film critics, but we are not! remember what Roger Ebert’s favorite quote, “a man goes to movies. a critic must always acknowledge that he is that man.” we all go to the movies to have a good time.

        if you didn’t feel the fun in those kids(i think most film buffs tried to make movies themselves at some point) then Super 8 may not really be for you. just seeing those kids trying to shoot their monster movie brought me back to the days when i tried to make my own little picture. this movie is actually ABOUT nostalgia.

      • DigDugYoMamma

        I actually hate ET and have had no desire to watch The Goonies, therefore I’m not blinded by nostalgia. And no Super 8 is not a movie for people with short attention spans especially if they cannot comprehend the underlying point the director is trying to make. Do schools even teach how to analyze stories anymore? Summer movies are for entertainment, but I’ll take a solid storyline and acting over ridiculous special effects and nonstop action any day.

        And I don’t think Abrams set about to make a classic- no film maker in their right mind nowadays would assume that. What he did was pay homage to a style of adventure film that no longer exists. He succeeded. Other directors have paid homage to a film style and they were not attacked for being overly nostalgic. (Watch The Man Who Wasn’t There by the Cohen brothers if you haven’t already). But then again there are no CGI monsters and an explosions every 5 minutes so it may not be attention span friendly.

        I bid you good day.

    • junierizzle


      I’m not saying nostalgia is bad. I’m saying just because a movie is nostalgic doesn’t make it good. What about the lame creature design, the forced sense of wonder, the lame ending, all the stuff that just didn’t make sense, etc.

      I made movies when I was little too and I even made SUPER 8 movies. I admit that part was cool and I was digging it up until the train derailed. After that it just went down the tubes for me. I actually found the kids to be quite annoying at times. We only got to know three of the kids anyway. They just tried so hard to make a “magical” movie like ET and Goonies and Close Encounters. You can’t force “magic” it either works or it doesn’t.

  • SteveMoody

    Can anyone confirm… does the monster look like the concept art here?

  • darrin

    more importantly, did anyone see a mission impossible trailer?

    • junierizzle

      Nope. I actually had some lame trailers where I went. The teaser trailer for Transformers 3, Puss N Boots, and I can’t even remember the rest.

  • sense 11

    It was a good movie, great performances. Not a bad way to spend 50 million dollars.

  • azazel

    saw this movie today nothing realy special but it’s a watch on a rainy day.

  • David Con

    I saw this movie tonight, and I don’t agree with this review – and not for the reasons I gave before.
    This movie was never dubbed as an action film, it was made out to be a Stand By Me/E.T., combination, and with that in mind, it did perfectly swell. So no, don’t expect Transformers-like action sequences because you won’t find them, and the CGI for the monster was superb, and I found it awe-inspiring. It makes me, the viewer, want to become a director, even if I’ve never wanted to. I was entertained, and I was delighted, and the score, to add, was a definite tribute to John Williams. So stop fighting, and just look at the film.
    It was brilliant in its own light, and I believe it was perfect – I’m 17, so don’t blabber on about how I don’t know anything.

    • Scotty

      I absolutely agree, it inspired me to do the same. It made me think, I want to make something like that! Which rather made me laugh at myself afterwards.

  • Scotty

    This is the worst review Collider has ever given. I am very disappointed. I expect this fantastic site, which I go to for everything from posters to reviews to show nothing but a standing ovation for a movie that has captured more emotion and pure AMAZINGNESS then any other blockbuster/summer movie has in years (most importantly since its the beginning of the summer movie season). I really thought I could count on this site for the inside expert opinion, but with such a one minded horrible review on such an absolutely fantastic and breath taking movie that rekindled so many memories and emotions that a movies have not been able to do in years, I really don’t have as much confidence anymore on the opinions of this site. Which to be all honest frustrates me. In conclusion Tisk tisk Collider…

  • wolfclaw

    this movie is pure stupdity filled with about 100 plot holes. the script is absurdity and the movie never knows what it wants to be. the kids were great,thats about it.

  • Zachrifice

    The Nostalgic vibe was what I was expecting from this movie and it delivered. I really liked it. Thumbs up.

    • Zachrifice

      BTW – Giving this movie a B- suggests youre smoking crack rock. This movie deserves AT LEAST a B+

  • MovieGeek

    All the elements seemed to be there: the teens friends, the suburban environment, the secrets “grown-ups” are not supposed to know about, the bicycles, the fat kid, the bad US army, the single parents, even the same time period (1979) and the same style of cinematography (night-time flares on the lens) and big soundtrack (a rousing score, mixed in with gentle and intimate piano cues).
    But are all those elements enough to reach the perfection of films like E.Tl? If you were cooking from a recipes book and you had all the right ingredients, would you still get it the cake right? You can easily guess the answer.There was really nothing massively wrong with Super 8 (the film is well done, well acted, is even under two hours and I’m sure it will please most of the crowds out there), but sadly there was also nothing original or surprising either.
    I liked it, and I loved it’s intentions, but I couldn’t really love the film.

    Having said that, it’s better than most of the junk out there this summer.
    My full review