Top positive review
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Entertaining, engrossing and extra-terrestrial - Derivative but from the very best
on July 4, 2011
Super 8 is admittedly not a perfect film, but I enjoyed it so much, and was so taken by the characters and the actors playing them, that I didn't really mind the occasional inconsistency or lingering "awed expressions" scene.
Set in a small town in Ohio in 1979, the basic plot centers around Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney), a 13-year-old boy whose mother recently died in a factory accident, leaving him with only his father, Jackson (Kyle Chandler), a sheriff's deputy who's a more than decent man but who has never known how to really be a father. Jackson's escape is burying himself in his work, while Joe's is helping his best friend Charles (Riley Griffiths) make an amateur zombie movie with the help of their other friends Preston (Zach Mills), Martin (Gabriel Basso) and Cary (Ryan Lee). But Joe's involvement becomes truly committed when Charles persuades Alice Dainard (Elle Fanning), a girl he secretly has a crush on, to join the project.
Things taken a sudden turn when, in the midst of shooting a midnight scene at the local railroad depot, Joe sees a pickup truck suddenly drive onto the tracks, directly in the path of an oncoming freight train, resulting in a spectacular crash that sends freight cars derailing everywhere and the shocked kids running for cover. The plot quickly thickens when Joe gets a glimpse of something bursting out of one of the freight cars, and when they find the driver of the pickup, badly injured, is Dr. Woodward (Glynn Turman), their biology teacher, who warns them to get away and to never speak of what they've seen to anyone or they - and their parents - will be killed. And then there's the knocked over Super 8 camera that has been continuing to roll throughout everything, capturing something that no one else saw while they were busy tried not to get crushed by flying debris. Something that will become important later as strange things begin to happen: dogs fleeing the town for no apparent reason, car engines and other pieces of machinery being stolen, people suddenly disappearing. And of course the massive influx of military personnel who are crawling all over everything while their commander, Col. Nelec (Noah Emmerich) blandly insists that there's _nothing_ going on.
The characters are well drawn, fleshed out with real personalities, quirks and flaws, and you very quickly come to care about them. And the actors, most of them either fairly unknown or newcomers, are marvelous, the kids in particular as they're at the heart of the film, but also the adults, particularly Kyle Chandler and Ron Eldard as the two fathers linked - and separated - by tragedy, each not doing so well at dealing with it. Joel Courtney as Joe has one of those faces that projects everything he's feeling, from the distance he's experiencing with his dad to the secret yet painfully obvious crush he has on Alice. Riley Griffiths as his best friend Charles is a perfect counterpoint, pursuing his film with single-minded determination but holding other things in. Ryan Lee's pint-sized braces-laden (and explosives-crazy) Cary is a riot, as is Gabriel Basso's Martin as the zombie film's leading man who has an unfortunate tendency to puke a lot, while Zach Mills' Preston has the healthiest fear-instinct of the crowd. And last but not least, Elle Fanning's Alice is a wonder, a sensitive girl with her own father issues whose unexpected natural talent at acting leaves the boys with their jaws hanging.
Super 8 is highly derivative, but in a good way. It draws on the best parts of any number of movies from the past, most notably E.T. (1982) and The Goonies (1985) but also films like Joe Dante's Explorers (1985) , The Bad News Bears (1976) and, more recently, Son of Rambow (2007), a little seen but marvelous independent British film about a couple of boys with family issues who bond over making an amateur movie.
Note: in one scene, there's a definite tip-of-the-hat prop taken right out of Spielberg's E.T. Just keep your eyes peeled when the camera closes in on the water tower near the climax of the movie and see if anything looks strikingly familiar.
There are admittedly weak points in the film, mainly where it seems uncertain of just which direction it wants to take or where inconsistencies tend to be glaring. Is the alien dangerous and deadly... or just misunderstood? Is the alien killing people... or just holding on to them for a while? The trouble is that in different parts of the film it's definitely one, but in other parts of the film it's the other. And the climactic lingering "awed expressions" scene does feel at odds with the the life-threatening dangers the characters were experiencing earlier (not to mention the burning shambles half the town has been reduced to). Another weak point is the villain, Col. Nelec (I suspect the name Nelec is an in-joke of some kind), who is never anything but a cliched military bad guy. But as I said, while these things do keep it from being a perfect film, they don't in the end get in the way from it being an engaging and enjoyable one.
Highly recommended for anyone who likes an engaging film that sucks you in and keeps you involved all the way through, and that values story and character over special effects and stars.