Starring: Joel Courtney, Elle Fanning, Kyle Chandler, Ron Eldard, Riley Griffiths, Ryan Lee, Noah Emmerich
Rating: PG-13, for action violence, dramatic intensity and some grody monster behavior
This film plays like an energetic cross between “E.T.” and “The Goonies,” and I mean that in all the best ways. I’d expect no less from producer Steven Spielberg and writer/director J.J. Abrams, who make a great team.
“Super 8″ hits the ground running and maintains a palpable level of suspense, while allowing sufficient time to explore the key characters and their varied relationships.
Two things to bear in mind:
First, this is a very loud film. The premise demands plenty of crashing, smashing and heavy gunfire, and sound effects editors David Acord and Dustin Cawood, and supervising sound editor Matthew Wood, definitely earn their paychecks. Given a theater with a well-tuned sound system — as was the case at Tuesday evening’s Sacramento preview — this flick will leave you wide-eyed and breathless.
Second, the PG-13 rating is deserved. The occasional shocks and jolts are on par with the severed head that unexpectedly bobbed into view, back in the day, during an underwater search in Spielberg’s “Jaws.” Since the whatzis is this story is large and carnivorous, draw the logical conclusions and be prepared accordingly.
Abrams opens his story with a doleful prologue, as young Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) has just lost his mother to a freak workplace accident: a sequence handled with poignant subtlety. The loss also is felt keenly by Joe’s father, Jackson (Kyle Chandler, familiar from TV’s “Friday Night Lights”), who works as one of the town deputies. For reasons not immediately made clear to us — or Joe — Jackson blames Louis Dainard (Ron Eldard) for the accident.
Four months then pass, putting Joe and his friends at the beginning of summer vacation. The small gang takes its marching orders from Charles (Riley Griffiths), who serves as director on an amateur zombie horror flick they’ve been making with his Super 8 camera.
Joe handles make-up, model work and occasional script tightening; Cary (Ryan Lee), something of a nascent firebug, takes care of explosives and pyrotechnics; Martin (Gabriel Basso), the tallest and most mature-looking, is the primary star; and Preston (Zach Mills) does anything else that needs doing.
Charles, having just decided that a female role would amplify the “emotional involvement” in his movie, tags Alice (Elle Fanning) for this duty. Truth be told, Charles is sweet on Alice, and that will create friction elsewhere: It quickly becomes apparent that she and Joe are destined for whatever young love may blossom during the subsequent crisis.
As a true guerilla filmmaker, Charles thinks nothing of dragging his pals out for midnight sessions, in order to capture an appropriate mood; he’s therefore delighted, during one late-night shoot at the local train station, when they get a chance to use an approaching train as “background color.” They get more than they bargained for, when said train derails during an explosive, jaw-dropping sequence that demonstrates Abrams means business.
The aftermath is odd for several reasons, starting with the thousands of odd, little white cube-like thingies spilled all over the place … and Joe’s uneasy suspicion that something large and nasty escaped from one of the cars. The kids’ bad feelings are verified when gun-toting military personnel quickly swarm all over the wreck. These military types, played for maximum thug potential, are led by the tight-lipped Nelec (Noah Emmerich, always superb in such arrogantly condescending roles).
Then weird stuff begins to happen throughout town: unusual thefts, intermittent power spikes and blackouts … and much worse. Soon, Joe and his friends — still trying to make their movie — find themselves at the heart of an increasingly disturbing mystery.
The escalating chaos and danger aside, though, we remain involved because we care about our protagonists.
Courtney is great as the sensitive young hero: a boy far from over the loss of his mother, bewildered by his father’s unwillingness to share his feelings, and perplexed — yet cautiously delighted — by the attention coming from the new girl in his proximity. Indeed, the scenes between Courtney and Fanning are marvelous, starting with the first time Alice rehearses a scene for Charles’ movie, and Joe suddenly wonders if her impressively natural “acting” is being directed at him.
Fanning is excellent in all respects, particularly when it comes to Alice’s actual emotions (as opposed to those she “fakes” for the sake of her role in the zombie movie). The dynamic between Alice and Joe is complicated, fueled as it is by her awareness of her own father’s shortcomings, and the hostility between him and Joe’s father, and the likely cause.
At first Alice wants nothing to do with Joe; then her behavior is motivated by guilt; then such negative feelings are overtaken by a growing crush. This is pretty subtle stuff, and Fanning nails every emotional nuance.
Lee and Basso are one-joke characters: the former a gleeful, pesky pyromaniac; the latter quite hilarious as he apes a method actor trying to understand his character’s motivation. Mills’ Preston doesn’t get much screen time, and his presence seems under-developed and superfluous.
Griffiths, on the other hand, is highly visible, his character quite well developed. The stocky Charles has a lot on his plate, whether dealing with all his uncontrolled siblings at home — a cute running gag — or self-consciously insisting that he’ll “lean out” one day soon, because his doctor said as much.
My chief complaint about Abrams’ story concerns the gender ratio. “The Goonies” gave us two girls, back in 1985: Kerri Green (the pretty one) and Martha Plimpton (the ungainly tomboy). Here we are in the second decade of the 21st century, and Abrams gives us only one girl? (Charles’ slutty older sister doesn’t count.)
Production designer Martin Whist conveys a solid sense of time and place with this small Midwestern community, from downtown storefronts to the economic divide separating the comfortably middle-class neighborhoods from homes on the wrong side of the tracks (that would be the Dainards).
Longtime Abrams colleague Michael Giacchino delivers a ferociously exciting score, although some of the music is drowned out by the aforementioned sound effects.
And be sure to remain in your seats for the closing credits, at which point you’ll finally see all the finished footage from Charles’ zombie opus.
“Super 8” revives happy memories of similar cinematic roller coasters roughly one generation ago, and I suspect it’ll plant fresh — and equally happy — memories in this generation’s minds.
— Read more of Derrick Bang’s film criticism at http://derrickbang.blogspot.com. Comment on this review at www.davisenterprise.com