Super 8,
directed by J.J. Abrams
(Paramount, 2011)

Combine Stand by Me and The Goonies. Sprinkle in a healthy amount of Jaws. Season with a generous dose of such legendary sci-fi films as The Thing from Another World and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Serve in the imagination of producer Stephen Spielberg and the capable hands of Spielberg's heir apparent, writer and director J.J. Abrams, and you have a massively entertaining story that manages the neat trick of taking you back in time.

For all the well-known story tropes it relentlessly accesses, Super 8 is not merely a nostalgic revisiting of an earlier time, nor is it a retro throwback that demythologizes its past. Instead of emphasizing the distance between then and now, Super 8 brings the big ideas that underscored Spielberg's early blockbusters into the present. Super 8 is also a decent, fairly moral story about complex issues like love, family, life and death. It's as much a coming of age story as anything else.

The story opens in a typically Spielbergian location, a small town in America whose heart is the factory that employs half the populace, and at a typically Spielbergian time, the summer of 1979. Life in such places can be a bit of a grind, all the more so for Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney), whose mother was killed in an accident at that same factory while working a shift that should have gone to alcoholic workmate Louis (Ron Eldard). Joe's father (Kyle Chandler), the town deputy, who has emotionally shortcircuited as a result of his loss, is living at arm's length from his precocious son. The only light in Joe's life is the movie he's making with his buddy, Charles (Riley Griffiths), a zombie flick shot on super-8 film that will be entered into a local film festival.

Of course there are problems galore. The girl Charles asks to "star" in his movie is the ethereally lovely Alice (Elle Fanning), on whom both he and Joe have a serious crush. Alice is the daughter of Louis, and neither father wants their children to hang out with one another. Solution: sneak out of the house and film on location at night, so as to avoid potential trouble. That leads to the whole gang witnessing a train crash. As if that wasn't enough trouble, Charles' film, which was running at the time of the accident, captures footage of the escape of a being whose existence is top secret.

Strange events start happening. Anything with an engine in it is either malfunctioning or missing. The town's dogs have hotfooted it out of town. Military convoys start rolling down the street. The first hour is a relentless tease about what might be hiding in the dark. In the second half, as Joe and his geeky cohorts realize what they are up against, the monster under the bed is revealed, and it's not what you might think.

The CGI effects are marvelously done, all the teases serving the big reveal very well. Everything, from setting to scenery to the excellent acting, is very well put together. Although the story can't help being a bit ham-handed in some spots, the overall effort is quite solid craftsmanship. Super 8 maintains its sense of wonder by engaging the imagination, not working in place of it. Stick around for the credits: you'll get to see a great zombie movie, as well.

review by
Mary Harvey

28 January 2012

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