The 1980’s was a special time in my life. It was another phase in my development in loving film. That decade saw many films starring kids and teens in coming-of-age tales both comedic, thrilling, dramatic and poignant. While there were many filmmakers who delved into this genre it was Steve Spielberg who mined it to great effect culminating in his classic boy-meets-alien film, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. It’s been almost 30 years since the release of that film and now comes a filmmaker who seem to have grown up idolizing and loving Spielberg films of that era. The year is now 2011 and J.J. Abrams is that filmmaker who dared to pay homage to those very same coming-of-age Spielberg films of the 80’s with his very own simply titled Super 8.
From the very moment the film begins there’s a sense of wonderment as we, the audience, meet young kids who become the central characters of Super 8. The film takes place in the early days of 1979 in the town of Lillian, Ohio as Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) tries to cope with the death of his mother. His friends keep him busy and dwelling on this tragedy through the Super 8 film they’re making in their spare time after school. These early scenes we begin to see the dynamics of the group as Joe acts as the calming influence on the group’s filmmaker, Charles (Riley Griffiths), the neurotic actor in Martin (Gabriel Basso) and the group’s stuntman/special effects tech in Carey (Ryan Lee). They all meet up at an old train depot where they plan to shoot scenes for their Super 8 zombie film. Into this eclectic group of kids comes in Alice (Elle Fanning) to play the wife to Martin’s detective character in their film.
It’s the scenes between the kids which lifts Super 8 from just being a nostalgic film to one that’s charming and magical. These scenes captures the creativity and youthful energy kids have always had no matter the era and place. These kids don’t act like stereotypes of what Hollywood thinks kids in films should act. There’s still little of the cynical teen dialogue that films nowadays give kids to say to make them seem more mature and worldly. There’s a sense of innocence in how these kids interact with each other. Some have called these scenes as being too on-the-nose nostalgic of Spielberg films of the 80’s. What some might call nostalgic I prefer to call as timeless. I still remember myself behaving with my childhood friends the way these kids did in this film
If Super 8 had just been about these group of kids trying to finish their Super 8 zombie film I conjunction with the dysfunction in the two main leads in Joe and Alice’s home life then Abrams film would’ve been the instant classic some have dubbed it. There’s only one problem with this and that’s the last half hour of the film and the scenes leading up to that involving the train derailment and the arrival of the U.S. Air Force to clean things up. The film begins to take on a split personality as these new elements get introduce to what has been a great coming-of-age story.
It’s these new elements and the final half hour which shows Abrams trying to combine a sweet story of kids and their lives growing up in small-town with an otherworldy and conspiracy tale that seem to come out of left field. By the time the final act of Super 8 arrives it becomes a different film altogether and the transition doesn’t work as well as the filmmakers might have hoped it would. Sure, this final reel has the thrills, explosions and danger, but the tonal shift in the story became so jarring that I had wished that Abrams just made two films instead of one. One film being the coming-of-age story and the other a thrilling sci-fi film.
Despite this I still enjoyed the film and I definitely loved the first two-thirds. The performances by Joel Courtney and Elle Fanning as Joe and Alice became the focal point for the story’s emotional foundation. Elle Fanning’s performance as Alice was one of the best things about Super 8. She nails every scene where she has to show extreme ranges of emotions but at the same time not try to oversell them. There’s a scene in the middle of the film where she begins to recount a personal detail as Joe sits behind her listening. Emotions begin to overwhelm her, but as kids moving towards teenhood are wont to do she tries to hold back the tears just waiting to flow freely and the sobs wanting to escapes. I wouldn’t be surprised if this scene alone had more than a couple people in the audience remembering similar events in their lives and just sobbing along with Alice.
Super 8 has been advertised as this mysterious film that may or may not have aliens but does pay homage to Spielberg and kid films of the 80’s. Abrams’ film definitely delivers on the thrills in the end, but it could’ve been so much more if it just stayed on course with just being about the kids and their magical time together making an amateur Super 8 zombie film in 1979. That would’ve been a film that deserved labels of instant classic.
All in all, Super 8 comes across as one of the more entertaining and magical films of the summer of 2011 if not the entire year. Make sure to stick around as the end credits roll to see the fruits of the kids labor titled simply as “The Case”.