I’d wager a guess that any self-respecting movie geek born before 1980 knows certain flicks better than the back of their hand. Chief among them, of course, are the Spielberg/Amblin productions that changed many a young individual’s life. Jaws. Close Encounters. E.T. Indiana Jones. Gremlins. Back to the Future. The Goonies. I could go on, but the point’s been made; obviously, one of those young film freaks remembered more than just what those movies looked like -- he remembered how they FELT -- and now J.J. Abrams has made his own, nostalgia-drenched tribute, Super 8.
Let me save some time right now: I freaking LOVED this movie. I know some people see it as a carbon copy with a few redeeming qualities that manages to fall very, very short of its ambitions with more than a few third act problems. Which is fine. What I know is that it’s been a long goddamn time since I’ve seen a summer movie that truly and honestly made me feel like a kid again, and I don’t mean that I was simply blown away by what I was seeing or thought “Wow, that’s awesome!!!” It stirred emotions in me that I hadn’t felt in a darkened theater for decades, at least. Wonder? Sure. Laughter? No question. But exhilaration and joy about BEING young, knowing that the best is yet to come, even in the midst of confusion and trepidation about that future -- but you feel in your heart that it’s all gonna be all right because it just. . .HAS to be? Nope, ain’t had that running around deep inside for awhile now. J.J. Abrams gave me that this summer and I bless him for it.
The story is familiar as an old VHS tape or comic book. It’s 1979 and Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) has just lost his mother in a tragic workplace accident. His father is a deputy sheriff in town (Kyle Chandler); distant yet loving, focused on his job to nudge aside his own grief. Joe and his friends make Super-8 homegrown horror flicks under the supervision of Charles (Riley Griffith), no doubt inspired by the similar type of antics Abrams and his young friends got up to in that era. For Joe’s dad Jack, this is just another thing he doesn’t understand about his son, and without specifically forbidding him to take part in this nonsense he makes it very clear just how wasteful Joe’s being with his time and more importantly, his ambitions.
Of course, Joe is thirteen. He and his friends have Dawn of the Dead and Halloween posters on their walls; they read Starlog and Fangoria. They know what a lot of us did in those years -- sometimes adults just don’t know every fucking thing. Sometimes what they’ve forgotten is much more important, because that’s where all the real magic is.
So one night, near the railroad tracks, Joe and the boys (and one local lass played by Elle Fanning as both the “real” movie and the movie they’re making’s “girl”) are shooting their latest opus, a zombie flick, when something wholly unexpected happens. A nearby train derails and suddenly the kids are under attack from flying debris, hundreds of pounds of shrapnel and twisted metal. Other than to say that this is where the plot truly begins -- as something escapes from a train car in the wreckage, I will simply point out that this is flat-out the most impressive train crash I’ve ever seen on film. No doubt in my mind, it’s astonishing to behold and really sets the tone for what follows.
Speaking of, what follows is: weird shit begins to go down in ever increasing proportions. First local animals and pets disappear, then people. Military trucks and vehicles are everywhere and not being particularly helpful to the townsfolk, who are understandably beginning to freak out. Various pieces of machinery, large and small, pull a Houdini as well. Many adults begin to fear it’s the work of those damn commies, but Joe and his friends begin to realize it’s something simpler than that. . .something probably even worse.
Which is about all the plot you need, if not too much anyway. What you need to know is that roughly 90% of this is delivered with a pitch-perfect eye and ear and couldn’t be done any better. By anybody. Maybe not even Big Steve himself. Abrams comes into his own here in a huge, enormous way. His direction is stellar; his script, impeccable; overall story-sense, unstoppable. Anyone who wants to nitpick the final third is free to do so, and I understand your point even if I don’t agree with it. Things start to happen very fast in terms of wrap-up and whatnot, sure. I’d call that accumulation. Not once did I think it glossed over too much or confuse me in any way. I always knew exactly what was happening even if sometimes I didn’t know where we were going (and didn’t care the few times that I did), and I knew that J.J. would pull it all together in the end. Which of course he did, with style and flair. . .and without being too flashy for the story or out-there show-offy in a way that went against the kind of flick he was making.
Chandler, along with the few adults in major roles, handle business like the pros they are. The kids are where this gets ridiculous. Courtney in particular has NEVER been in a single thing before in his life, and you’d never know it. The kid’s got a serious future ahead of him; same could be said for Elle Fanning (I know, but hear me out). I can’t remember seeing Dakota’s lil’ sis in anything but I’ll sure as hell not be forgetting her now. There’s a scene in the movie-within-the-movie where. . .and trust me, you’ll know it when you see it, cause everybody on the screen is having the same reaction as the audience. . .she is simply acting her ass off. I’ve seen grown women who’ve made a career of the craft who couldn’t do what she does in that scene. The other kids are similarly good-to-great; unaffected and natural in the way that the kids we’ve all known or been are and were (particular favorite throwaway moment of mine: when the firebug kid Cary responds to some military prick, “that’s right” with complete confidence and smartassery).
The effects are much as we would expect -- flawless, which is to say if there were any to be found, I missed ‘em. The story is touching and moving in the way those old Amblin/Big Steve flicks were without even seemingly trying. It’s scary in the way those were, too - never flat out gory, but the suspense keeps you RIGHT THERE and then you jump and then you smile at the movie for making you do so. Also, I can’t say enough about the “look” but the easiest and most accurate way to put it is to say you’ve seen it before in a million movies, but it reminds you just why you missed it even if you didn’t know it. All of it adds up to one hell of a popcorn movie for the ages.
Perfect? Maybe not. All I know is that I found myself thinking about it for hours afterward, then days later. Every time I did? I realized I had a big stupid grin on my face, and something more amazing. . .I was completely happy and content. Now that’s nostalgia for you.