“Super 8” is a movie for people who like movies. It’s also a movie for people that like suspense, people that like action, romance, special effects, character development… J.J. Abrams has put out another one for the books in “Super 8”. From his rise to fame with “Lost” almost ten years ago, Abrams has been known to put out thought provoking and entertaining material. While it’s almost trendy and mainstream to be a fan, the man can make a movie. I’m not buying it as far as television goes, which is his area of expertise, but when you give him two hours and one shot at it, I’ll buy the ticket.
I feel that the best way to go into “Super 8” is with no knowledge of what the movie is about. It’s just like with “Cloverfield”; watch the teaser, believe the hype, then sit your arse down and pay attention. What you need to know about “Super 8” is this: A group of kids get together to film a movie for a short film competition. While they’re filming a scene, they witness a major train crash. The bizarre reason for the crash and the odd happenings around town afterward compel the kids to do a little investigating of their own into what was going with the train and the town. And that’s all you need to know. If that summary and the rest of this review aren’t enough to get you to go to the video store, then I guarantee this movie is not for you.
One thing we come to expect from big budget Hollywood movies these days is great special effects. If the movie is costing millions of dollars to make, we better get to see some giant explosions and monsters and car chases and such. “Super 8” gives you a healthy dose of special effects and *gasp* they’re mostly CGI. This usually rubs me the wrong way, but I have to highlight the train crash here. The particular scene is one of the most impressive shows of direction, effects and sound in cinema. There are explosions, fires, people running and screaming, train cars flying everywhere, everything you would expect from a good train derailment. What makes it so special is the emotion that comes through as hell is breaking loose. The conscious shot angles and screen time of certain characters over others works to create a chaotic and engaging scene reminiscent of the Normandy Beach Invasion in “Saving Private Ryan”. The sound is spot on, and probably the most critical piece of the scene. Surround is a must. It’s an oft overlooking aspect of movies, since it is always there and never a big focus, but skillful sound engineers can make or break a scene and even a movie. The people behind “Super 8” made Abrams look good, and he better be giving them all a giant pat on the back.
With a lot of very good movies, the plot is not nearly as important as the characters. “Super 8” has a fairly compelling plot, but if not for the characters involved and their personalities, the story would flounder. Joe, who I would consider the main character, is a prime example of the well crafted roles in this film. He has a troubled past and home life, but it’s not overdone and doesn’t spill into his interactions with his peers. He’s shy and sweet, not exactly the traditional characteristics of a lead. To top it off, he’s the make up guy for the crew. From that rap sheet, he should be a minor character with a few lines at best. There’s Charles, the director, or Mr. Lamb, Joe’s dad, who is the sheriff, or even Alice, the pretty girl with the good for nothing father. All of these other characters, and Abrams taps Joe as the lead. It’s not an underdog story, just a very inventive use of a ‘normal’ character to tell an extraordinary story.
To make any character interesting and believable, no matter how well written or scripted, an actor has to deliver. “Super 8” is all about quality acting. The casting is superb, with every player fitting their role almost perfectly. No one is really a household name, and I doubt they will be, but as a viewer you have to appreciate a fresh set of faces in unfamiliar roles. Kyle Channing, of “Friday Night Lights” fame, plays the father and sheriff, basically the ‘leader’ in town. This is a familiar role to moviegoers, and so it is played by a fairly familiar face. Elle Fanning has been around the acting block a few times, so Abrams gives her a slightly less common role, that of the cute, popular girl from a messed up background with big dreams and a soft side for younger kids. Am I losing anyone? Now we get to Joel Courtney, who plays a shy make up artist and model builder who happens to be the main character. Heard of either one before? No? Good, that’s what a good writer and casting director would want you to say. Courtney is especially talented, going from grieving to hopelessly in love to a hero by the end. That’s range, and it requires a special match between actor and role to achieve with any level of proficiency.
I started this review by saying that “Super 8” is a movie for movie lovers. At it’s heart, it’s every young filmmakers fantasy. You get the perfect shot for your movie, you uncover some hidden secrets, you get the girl and you end up a hero. Seeing as I count myself as being a “young filmmaker”, I can’t really judge how the movie would feel for say, someone that has never picked up a camera. What I can do is take a step back and admire a well written movie with intrigue, lots of great visual elements, an endearing love story and a solid cast. What it really succeeded in doing was reaffirming that the great American film industry as we know it is not dead and condemned to clichéd sequels and remakes. There are still many stories to tell, we just have to give the pen and the camera to the right person.