In the summer of 1979, a bunch of small town Ohio kids set out to make their very own zombie movie. That's exciting in and of itself, but after a train crash which the military cloaks in secrecy, all kinds of weird things begin to happen. And fledgling filmmaker Charles (Riley Griffiths) caught something on "Super 8."
Producer Steven Spielberg and writer/director J.J. Abrams ("Star Trek," TV's 'Lost') try to regain the retro wonder of Spielberg's "Close Encounters" and "E.T." with "Super 8" and succeed...to a degree. Abrams has assembled a terrific cast, particularly the six focal kids with Elle Fanning ("Somewhere") giving an honest-to-God Oscar calibre performance as Alice Dainard, the girl both Charles and lead character Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) crush on. As long as the film focuses on the way kids were and how they behave, the film is a joy. When it comes to the more sensational aspects of the story, though, the ones Paramount is pushing to sell the film, things become more problematic. There's more than a little Stephen King haunting this film, from the good, like the leaning more towards the blue collar environs of "Stand By Me" than Spielberg's more cookie cutter upper middle class neighborhoods, to the bad, like many of the overplotted-until-they-end-in-a-muddle works like "Insomnia."
The film begins establishing character. A sad Joe Lamb sits on a swing in the winter snow. Neighbors Mr. and Mrs. Kaznyk (Jessica Tuck, 'Big Love's' The Tommyknockers, typifying parents of a childhood best friend) watch him out the window and between the lines we learn Joe's just lost his mother. Then a long-haired blond guy (Ron Eldard, "Black Hawk Down," looking like Gerard Depardieu's younger brother) drives up in a yellow Challenger only to be thrown out of the house and driven away in a squad car by Joe's dad, Deputy Jackson Lamb (Kyle Chandler, TV's 'Friday Night Lights,' in a perfectly understated performance). Four months later, Joe and his buddies have been let out of school and plan to spend their summer helping Charles Kaznyk make his zombie magnum opus for a film competition. Joe's a budding Joe Dante, an expert monster model maker and makeup effects artist while Charles frets that he can't be left with nothing but 'production values' - he must have story! And so their star, worriwort Martin (Gabriel Basso, Showtime's 'The Big C'), has a wife written in for emotional heft. Charles recruits Alice, an older than her years fourteen year-old who steals her drunkard dad's Challenger to take them to a midnight location shoot. She objects to the presence of the Deputy Sheriff's son until he, smitten, promises to keep her secret. Off they go to the train station along with pyromaniac Cary (Ryan Lee) and Preston (Zach Mills). Everyone's stunned by Alice's performance, but an approaching train has Charles hopping up and down on those production values, so the scene's redone. Only Joe notices the white pickup that purposefully drives onto the train tracks before all hell breaks loose.
And although the resulting train crash is spectacular, here is where "Super 8's" problems begin. Firstly, there is some spacial confusion, but the real issues lie with believability and continuity. When Joe draws his buddies' attention to the accident just as it happens, there is a massive explosion when the train hits the truck, enough to cause it to derail sending cars hurtling through the air. Yet the kids find an important survivor in that truck, Dr. Woodward (Glynn Turman, "Burlesque"), a science teacher from their middle school. Secondly, we see the Dainard car in the line of fire (the station itself is flattened), yet later all Alice worries about is her dad finding out she took the car - there's not a scratch on it. These types of issues begin to infiltrate the story more and more until they derail the film's climactic ending, one that tries to create a parallel with Joe's model building that's too much of a stretch. The underwhelming ending demands a coda to restore the characters we've come to know to the forefront, but we do not get one.
So the film's science fiction aspects are lacking, although the mysterious thing on the train is given a nice gradual build, first glimpsed in a gasoline puddle, eventually appearing like something from a 1950's creature feature on Charles's developed film, then further developed for a late going close up encounter. The military, led by Air Force colonel Nelec (Noah Emmerich, "Little Children"), is of the dubious variety from King's "The Mist," although their nefarious actions, up to and including murder, are more intentional. If Spielberg's 1970's vibe was childlike wonder, J.J. Abrams' is a far darker mistrust of authority bred of our times. Abrams' ironic nods to the past, while amusing and often highly accurate (Lillian's sheriff telling a gas station attendant that his Walkman is a 'slippery slope' for example), also tend to pull us out of his story - the clerk who tells the desperate Charles that his super 8 film cannot be developed overnight protests the denial of service too much.
But the steel mill town of Lillian, Ohio (production design by Martin Whist, "Cloverfield") and its inhabitants are the real deal. Lillian is made up of lived in looking ranch homes and neglected, asphalt shingled colonials. The town's photo shop sports a color striped cardboard mobile display ad to 'preserve one's memories' that sent me back three decades. Never has a first romance been so compelling portrayed on screen, nor the joy of shared experience and adventure. Also nostalgically real is the kids' interactions with adults. The Kaznyk family is the type of large, boisterous brood commanded over by an unflappable live-at-home mom that seems a distant memory. Charles's older sister Jen (AJ Michalka, "The Lovely Bones," "Secretariat"), whose charms are used to rope pot-smoking Kodak store clerk Donny (David Gallagher, "Boogeyman 2") into the boys' heroic mission to save Annie from the mysterious thing from Area 51, may still be a kid, but she's a whole other level of maturity to Joe and company.
"Super 8's" young cast and exciting trailer will more than likely make it a wanna see for the younger set, but parents should be forewarned that the movie, while focused on kids, has been made for adults. Alcoholism, drug use and petty crime may raise questions while human body munching may be too graphic for younger audiences. There may be an element of "E.T." here, but this one's rightfully pissed off.
Robin did not see this film.
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