I’m hesitant to write a summary of Super 8 because I went in knowing nothing about it, had some reservations at first, but was so surprised at around the 10-minute mark that I immediately came on board. So if you’d like to enjoy it cold, read no further. Though I suspect that warning could apply to any film.
Super 8 takes place during the summer of 1979 and follows an outcast group of kids deeply engaged in one of the great pleasures of childhood: making movies. There’s the director Charles (Riley Griffiths), Joe, the makeup guy (Joel Courtney), a few of their bucktoothed, gangly friends, and the female lead Alice (Elle Fanning). Of course, these kids invest much more into their movies than my friends and I ever did (makeup? Multiple angles?), and one of the running gags is Charles’ insistence on production values, regardless of whether it endangers the cast and crew.
While shooting one of the scenes at an abandoned depot, a train barrels past and is derailed by a truck driving down the tracks. The magnificent crash is caught on film and the kids discover that the driver of the truck, who miraculously survives, is their science teacher Mr. Woodward (Glynn Turman), who tells them to get the hell out of there just as the feds arrive.
As the children flee, they catch a glimpse of the train’s cargo doing likewise, and Joe retrieves a mysterious object from the rubble, something looking like Satan’s Rubik’s cube. Over the next few days, Sam’s Rubik’s cube starts to take on a life of its own and hints that the train’s cargo is an extra-terrestrial, which is confirmed when the boys rewatch their footage of the crash.
As the kids try to figure out just what’s going on, the town is plagued by several bizarre occurrences—pets flee, lights flicker, and many of the townsfolk, including Alice, are abducted by a litany of tendrils. The military evacuates the town, and the kids must band together to rescue their friend.
Doubtless the film will invite comparisons to Spielberg (who produced it), particularly ET and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but also Jaws as well as The Goonies (though if you young people haven’t heard of those, you’re still likely to enjoy it) because of its setting, characters, and content, and further still the themes of absent fathers, shadowy government agencies, and an unspeakable horror descending on small-town America, but Abrams is a good deal darker. His characters’ mouths are a touch dirtier and his aliens a whole lot more violent.
And yet, he lacks Spielberg’s sense of craft. That may be an unfair (and dubiously phrased) criticism, but his aim is clearly to emulate Spielberg, and while Super 8 does so in creating a sweet dynamic of friendship among its characters, the film drags whenever the monster is on screen.
Abrams special effects have always seemed to me too artificial, but even more so, each death is trivialized, and none of them approach the sense of peril Spielberg created in Jaws: You remember the girl dragged around helplessly in the opening scene; the geyser of blood spewing from the little Kintner boy; the horrific *thump* of the rower’s leg…call them exploitative if you like, they’re all of them great scenes, and I wish Super 8 had had a little more “fun” with his deaths.
Still, while the influences are there, and apparent, they don’t overshadow the film, and Abrams wisely sticks to his good sense of character, particularly with the kids. Courtney, Fanning, and Griffiths are able to carry the film, and while their performances don’t call for anything spectacular, they nonetheless create a charming camaraderie and pettiness that’s both the mainstay of the film and its greatest strength. The subplot between Joe’s father (Kyle Chandler), the widowed town sheriff, and Alice’s (Ron Eldard), the town drunk, doesn’t fare as well, and feels like an unnecessary complication added on for an unconvincing payoff at the end.
Nevertheless, Super 8 is an enjoyable film with more strengths than weaknesses. Fans of old-school Spielberg will enjoy it, fans of JJ Abrams will enjoy it, and fans of pretty much anything else will as well.