REVIEW: Super 8

It was starting to seem like I’d only be reviewing comic-book movies this summer (There are a LOT this season), but I just saw J.J. Abrams’ Super 8, so I’m eager to write up my thoughts on the movie. I absolutely love alien movies (it’s weird saying that, because I was terrified of E.T. when I was small), and Super 8 gave me everything I look for in a flick from this genre: likable young actors, a small-town setting, an overbearing military presence, and a great monster. What’s more, Abrams ties everything up in a story with a smart script and an optimistic tone that suits its youthful leads.

What caught my attention about this movie from the opening shot was its emphasis on story. It doesn’t immediately introduce the alien and let it start wreaking havoc; instead, the movie revolves around the main character, a young boy named Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney), the son of the deputy sheriff. All Joe wants to do is spend his summer shooting a zombie movie with his friends, and maybe get to know the only girl on the production, Alice Dainard (Elle Fanning). When the kids decide to shoot late at night on a train platform, they end up as witnesses to a catastrophic derailment of an Air Force train that was carrying something – and the movie proceeds from there.

Super 8 is very similar to the alien movies that marked Steven Spielberg’s early career, like Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. Interestingly enough, Spielberg served as producer on Abrams’ film – I can almost see Abrams bringing Spielberg in to look at the development of the film and give his advice. Spielberg’s earlier alien movies were imbued with a sense of wonderment about the arrival of the aliens, and the government or military more often comes across as the villain than the aliens. The same thing happens in Super 8, but with a twist: the alien is murderous and destructive, but we are given an insight into its motives, and this helps justify its behaviour.

J.J. Abrams’ direction is very apparent in this movie: as he showed in the pilot episode of Lost and in the 2009 Star Trek reboot, he can handle both action scenes and quiet dialogue, and knows how to keep the film focused: we never lose sight of the fact that this movie is about Joe Lamb, instead of the larger incident around him. Due to this focus on character, I became wrapped up in Joe’s story and the eccentricities of his gang of friends almost immediately, and drew some easy comparisons between his group of friends and the "gangs" in movies like The Goonies or Stand By Me. Each kid has his own personality, and the banter between them is very familiar for anyone who remembers their “preteen” years.

Since the film is set in 1979, it gains a “period” feel: it’s cool seeing the now-classic cars and jokes about the “slippery slope” of portable music players. This carries over to the cinematography: the film has a matching late-70s colour palette and is sometimes intercut with 8mm footage from the kids’ camera. A selection of hit songs from the era accompanies Michael Giacchino’s excellent score (another Lost connection). The sound design has all the monster noises and creepy sound design we expect from an alien movie - something which helps set up the jump moments when people get grabbed or objects get suddenly smashed.

I liked how the kids don’t become close friends with the alien. They actually only have a few direct encounters with it, which is much more fresh (and plausible) than a plot about kids finding and saving a creature from outer space and keeping him in a treehouse or something. We see what the creature can do, and the kids are more concerned with survival, as most would be after living through a train derailment and full military shutdown of the community. I won’t spoil the reveal of the alien, but I will say that it was pretty cool – I just wish its apparent “psychic” power was explored in a bit more detail.

The film ends up being a loving homage to the movies Abrams grew up with, including Spielberg’s work and disaster films like The Towering Inferno or Earthquake. In fact, if you look closely, you can see glimpses of posters and memorabilia from those movies in the kids’ bedrooms – as a fan of Abrams, I’ve read a number of interviews with him and I loved picking out all the references to the titles that inspired him to become a filmmaker.

I sometimes feel pressured as a reviewer to come up with negative things to say about a movie, but there really wasn’t much to complain about in Super 8. It was thoroughly entertaining, with a number of laughs, some genuine scares, and very solid storytelling and character development. For all that, Super 8 gets three and a half stars out of four – I can’t call it an instant classic, but it definitely deserves to be mentioned in league with the movies that inspired it. I’d actually call it one of the better alien films in years, a movie with a far more optimistic ending than Cloverfield (some are saying Super 8 is a prequel to Cloverfield, but I’m not convinced).

What did you think of Super 8? Did it live up to the hype generated by its viral marketing campaign? Do you think it’s connected to Cloverfield? What did you think of the reappearance of Abrams’ visual signature, the dramatic lens flare? Share your thoughts in the comments below, and check out my other recent movie reviews:

-X-Men: First Class-

-Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides-