CAPSULE: J. J. Abrams, as homage to the early Steven Spielberg, writes and directs a pastiche of Spielberg's early juvenile films. A group of friends making an amateur zombie film one night witness a train derailment that involved more than meets the eye. They are soon caught up in a situation of global proportions. This would have been a fun drive-in sort of film, not the deepest film, but fun aimed at young teen level. On those terms it is acceptable family fare. Spielberg is one of the producers, by the way. Rating: +1 (-4 to +4) or 6/10
Warning: Very minor spoilers. I have tried to spoil much less than most other reviews I have seen, but this review is probably not spoiler-free.
The year is 1979. Thirteen-year-old Joe Lamb (played by Joel Courtney) is still getting over the loss of his mother four months earlier and having some run-ins with his father, the Ohio town sheriff's deputy. Joe likes monster movies and his friends Charles (Riley Griffiths), Preston (Zach Mills), Martin (Gabriel Basso), and Carey (Ryan Lee) are making a zombie movie in the old Super 8 film format--the same format that Spielberg used as a boy. Tentatively joining the group is attractive Alice (Elle Fanning). As they are trying to film a night scene in a railroad depot they witness a train derailment right in front of--and, in fact, all around--them. The train derails when it hits a pickup truck on the tracks, but only Joe sees that the pickup's driver intentionally derailed the train. Examining the pickup, the band of friends find it was driven by their school science teacher who warns them they are in danger for what they have seen and, they must keep it quiet. But what exactly have they seen? The mystery deepens when they discover that the train was an Air Force military transport carrying tens of thousands of vaguely cube-shaped metal pieces, all identical. And there may have been more than that aboard that train. The train crash, loud and scary, is the showpiece of the film. Nothing after it quite comes up in spectacle.
The film has a lot of touches, especially allusions to Spielberg films or 1970s films. There are bits borrowed from E.T., THE GOONIES, and CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND. There are also some touches from J. J. Abrams. As with CLOVERFIELD, the title SUPER 8 totally conceals the subject matter of the film. For one familiar reference Joe's hobby is putting together Aurora models of his favorite monsters. The film takes place in 1979, about fifteen years after the availability of the Aurora kits that Joe assembles. But it is possible he finds them in places like flea markets and yard sales. There are plenty of little details for people who were horror film nerds in the 1970s.
Some script logic seems a little half-baked. At one point the Air Force evacuates the town on the pretext that people need to be protected from a wildfire. They then proceed to do things to the town that will be impossible to explain later. What are they planning to tell the people? But where this film stands out is its attention in creating characters. Like Jamie in EMPIRE OF THE SUN, Joe in this film gets his power from his innocence. Joe loves horror films like Jamie loved airplanes.
Abrams might have brought his own special style to this story as he did with STAR TREK. Sadly no. It is just the sort of film that Spielberg might have made around 1979. The special effects are a little better. SUPER 8 seems intended to be little more than a nod to films like THE GOONIES. It certainly does not rise above them in spite of better special effects. The viewer should see it not expecting one of the great summer films, but just a minor summer kids film. It is good enough to meet that expectation. I rate SUPER 8 a modest +1 on the -4 to +4 scale or 6/10.
Film Credits: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1650062/
What others are saying: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/super_8/
Mark R. Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Copyright 2011 Mark R. Leeper