Middle school student Joe Lamb’s (Joel Courtney) best friend, Charles (Riley Griffiths), is hell-bent on making a zombie movie that will take a bite out of the competition at a local international film festival. One night, Charles gathers Joe and the rest of his closest buds, Cary; Preston; and Martin, to the train station to film a pivotal scene in his movie. Their ride there is a new addition to their film-troupe, and a member of the opposite sex: the soft-spoken Alice (Elle Fanning). The scene they film is straight out of any classic romance, where the wife of the hero begs him not to get himself into danger, and to instead come with her on her journey out of town. Charles says it will help the audience empathize with the hero. As Alice is nailing her newfound role, a train comes by, is filmed, and then derails violently thanks to a pickup truck that hits it head-on.
This premise alone sounds more original and interesting than a lot of screenplays floating around today, yet director J.J. Abrams adds a twist to further the tension: something escapes from a train car after the crash, and with the power to kick out an entire metal door, it certainly doesn’t seem human.
“Super 8” is a cross-combination of mystery, science fiction, and romance. It doesn’t dumb itself down to entertain audiences, nor does it portray children as meandering brats. Set in the summer of 1979, Abrams’s picture immediately cranks up the pace after the crash, as methodical army men descend upon the small Ohio town of Lillian in an effort to contain whatever escaped.
The children, on the outset of a fresh summer, decide to keep their mouths shut about the carnage they witnessed. This isn’t a problem for Joe, who lives alone with his deputy of police father, Jackson (Kyle Chandler), a man who, like his son, is mourning the recent death of his wife due to a factory accident. Jackson doesn’t like his son running around with monster makeup and movie-obsessed kids, including one who is fascinated with fireworks (Ryan Lee). He pushes baseball camp on his son, and stays out of his way as much as possible to avoid any further discussions.
The greatest strength of “Super 8” lies in its dialogue. J.J. Abrams also handled the script duties, and he typed out a gem. The kids act like real, adventurous kids, not stereotyped one-sided characters. There’s a scene at the beginning of the film that captures a fluid chemistry between Joe’s friends. Standing around at Joe’s mother’s funeral reception, Charles and the gang discuss what a dead body looks like, how good the turkey rolls are, and whether or not Charles’ film will be finished. They also manage to tell each other to “shut up” a few times as well.
Meanwhile, strange things start to happen around town. Dogs leave the town limits, and then, just to be safe, leave the next town’s limits. People like the sheriff and the attendant at Kelvin’s Gas Station go missing, along with car engines and microwaves. In the midst of this chaos, the adults get to dominate scenes of their own, and Abrams switches nicely between each age group. Jackson emcees a town meeting to ease the residents’ fears, and finds that paranoia runs too rampant for even the police department to handle. As one lady puts it, “The Soviets did it.”
Jackson also butts heads with Army torture specialist Nelec. Coming off a memorable stint on “The Walking Dead” as the depressed Dr. Edwin Jenner, Noah Emmerich plays Nelec with a sadistic glee. He smirks when threatening a man for information; observes his fallen comrade with steely, unfeeling eyes in a moment of utter horror; and lies straight to Jackson’s face when asked if there is anything the police force should know. “I can assure you, the answer is no,” Nelec says before walking away. The claustrophobic quarantine that the army instills adds a neat backdrop to a town already dealing with a slew of mysteries. It seems like you can’t have a science fiction movie without a government cover-up involved, but Nelec and company add an effective monkey wrench into Lillian’s small-town life.
Abrams is no stranger to the science fiction genre. His shaky camera, Godzilla-type invasion film “Cloverfield,” and the remake of “Star Trek,” were great successes at the box office. “Super 8” is his first all-original idea, though, and he adds a memorable addition to a genre that continues to spew into theaters and Redboxes at rapid rates.
I give “Super 8” four and one-half stars out of five, in other words, an A-.
“Super 8” is rated “PG-13” for intense sequences of sci-fi action and violence, language, and some drug use. It has a running time of 1 hour and 51 minutes, and it was released on DVD and Blu-ray on November 22, 2011. “Super 8” is currently one of the top five DVD rentals, according to Rotten Tomatoes.