The summer vacation doldrums are here, providing IQ challenges to moviegoers of all ages, but for adolescents with a lot of free time on their hands, Super 8 promises something extra. It’s the work of J.J. Abrams, the slam-bam hack writer-director of such junk as Star Trek and Mission Impossible 3 (OK, he also wrote the nifty, nail-chewing road thriller Joy Ride, which I liked a lot), but this time the producer is Steven Spielberg, so you have a right to expect something with a bit more quality. Sorry to dash your hopes, but it’s just more of the same junk. Junk for children, with an estimated $45 million budget. There oughta be a law.
The premise is simplicity itself. In the summer of 1979, six school chums in a small steel-mining town in Ohio decide to make a zombie movie with a handheld 8-millimeter camera to enter in a Cleveland film competition. A smart, imaginative kid named Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney), wise beyond his years like Henry Thomas in E.T., does lights, monster makeup and special effects. Joe has recently lost his mother in a mining accident, but despite the bravery and can-do attitude that make him a leader among the others, he still carries around his late mom’s locket for good luck.
He also carries a secret crush on Alice (Elle Fanning), who objects to working with Joe because his father (Kyle Chandler) is the deputy sheriff who arrested her father for drunkenness at Joe’s mother’s funeral. In fact, both Joe and Alice have been forbidden to continue working on their little home movie, which their fathers consider a frivolous waste of time, but secretly continue, disobeying orders and sneaking out at night when their dads aren’t home. This is easier than it sounds, since zombie movies are all night scenes anyway, right?
But one night while filming at the depot, they accidentally witness a spectacular train crash (and we witness some spectacular special effects that get the movie off to a breathtaking start). Out of the wreckage, a man warns: “Do not speak of this or you and your parents will die.”
Good advice. Because, wouldn’t you know, an alien from outer space also emerges. This is no cuddly E.T., but a monolithic monster capable of destroying everything in its path, and it’s hopping mad. Automobile transmissions fail, generators die, all of the pets in town disappear, telephone wires vanish, water and electricity are on the fritz. And the kids caught it all on their Super 8!
It’s all the result of some evil plan, natch, cooked up by the U.S. Air Force, natch, in a secret military operation to imprison and study a master race from another planet … but never mind. You needn’t concern yourself about plot, character development and science. Better to just let the charm and resourcefulness of the six kids take over, enjoy the sci-fi effects that appear at the beginning and end of the movie, and be grateful for small favors.
This movie is divided into two halves: the movie within the movie, and the stuff about the monster destroying the town that only the kids can save. The best part, is the kids, all perfectly cast. The script does a much better job making them more believable and real than the adults.
The funniest parts of the movie center on the kids while they are filming their zombie epic. Cary (Ryan Lee) is the one who likes to set fires and blow things up. Martin (Gabriel Basso) is the dashing leading man who bursts into tears when real danger threatens. Best of all, there is director Charles (Riley Griffiths), the overweight, tyrannical Orson Welles of the pack, weaned on cheesy B-movie monsters-and-mayhem thrillers, who doesn’t care what calamities occur as long as the camera keeps rolling.
Watching these youngsters following their dream against all odds, I found myself getting some of my inner child back and laughing out loud at the same time. The rest of the movie steals shamelessly from Alien, The Thing and every other space visitor flick ever made, including Spielberg’s own Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
It takes forever, but when we finally come face to face with the actual monster, it’s as silly as it is enigmatic—rolling its eyes like Casper the Friendly Ghost while sucking air-conditioners and toaster ovens into a heap like a walking garbage dump! Turns out he’s just homesick. All it takes to calm him down is Joe’s locket. He’s no E.T. but he still understands “Go home.” By that time, I could hardly wait myself.