A group of kids shooting a zombie movie find themselves in the middle of mystery in their small town in Super 8, an enchanting love letter to movie magic.
For the kids in a small Ohio town in the late 1970s, the path to movie-making is not through YouTube but a film festival full of movies made on home cameras with super 8 mm film. Middle-schooler Charles (Riley Griffiths) is writing and directing a zombie film with help from his friends Cary (Ryan Lee), whose skills include blowing things up, Preston (Zach Mills), Martin (Gabriel Basso) and perhaps Charles’ best friend Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney). Joe, who likes to build models of trains and other vehicles, is an expert at monster make-up. He’s a quiet kid, particularly since his mother died months earlier in a factory accident. Now it’s just Joe and his dad, a sheriff’s deputy, Jackson Lamb (Kyle Chandler), who seems unsure how to proceed now that his wife is gone.
Joe, Charles and company sneak out of their homes one night to shoot a midnight scene at the local train depot. Joining them is Alice (Elle Fanning), a girl who has her own difficult relationship with her father (Ron Eldard). She’s going to play a love interest to help add story, Charles tells the boys authoritatively. Also, she took her dad’s car to help them haul equipment out to the site.
At first, the shoot goes well. An approaching train even offers the promise of what Charles keeps calling “production value” — so the camera is running as the train passes and then as it crashes, derailing spectacularly and scattering the kids across the field as they run from exploding cars and flying metal. After the crash, a disturbing find has the kids scampering for the car and racing back toward town, agreeing with each other to never tell anyone they were at the accident. The next day, the military shows up to take care of the clean-up, reassuring a not-convinced Deputy Lamb that everything is fine and nothing dangerous was in the train containers. But then all the town’s dogs disappear. Then people start to disappear. And then the power starts to flicker. And then more military officials show up.
As the strangeness continues, the kids worry about what they saw that night and how in-trouble they’ll be if anybody finds out about their being there. But they also use the military personnel and the crash site as “production value” and their movie begins to morph to fit the situation in their town.
And of course the bit of dramatic irony is that this movie, Super 8, is exactly the kind of classic sci-fi Cold War paranoia movie that the movie the boys are making. (There is a great scene where townsfolk suggest that the Soviets have something to do with everything that’s happened.) And nostalgia for this kind of movie, as well as nostalgia for E.T.-style 1980s blockbusters, is in part what fuels this movie. The movie plays a bit with this while also riffing off it — not parodying it exactly, but having some fun with the form. For this reason, the movie seems as much about movies as it is about the kind of sci-fi mystery that is the focus of the plot.
And who better to pull this kind of sleight of hand than this movie’s writer/director J.J. Abrams? And who better to join him in it than Steven Spielberg, who has a producer credit here? It’s not just his presence that made me think of E.T., it’s also the movie’s atmospherics — the late 1970s music and clothes, the kids with parent issues, the sense that kids had their own adventures that adults weren’t privy to. And then there’s the sentiment, which I think the movie balances very well with the action and the mystery, much in the spirit of, say, The Goonies (which this film also reminded me of). We feel for these characters as much as we root for them.
And the solidness of the cast helps to back up the solidness of the story. These kids are pretty uniformly great. They are kid-like — one always pukes when there’s trouble, there’s a fair amount of friendly name-calling — and refreshingly not hammy or overly precocious (I’m talking to you, every kid on every sitcom on Disney). The adults are good too — we get layers from Kyle Chandler’s performance but not so much act-y acting that it slows down the story.
Depending on your own kid’s age (I’m thinking about 9 or 10 and up) and threshold for scary stuff, I think this is one of those rare movies that the whole family can enjoy. It doesn’t pander (OK, maybe a little to us early Spielberg fans) or talk down to any sector of the audience, and the movie genuinely charms as it pulls you in. A
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi action and violence, language and some drug use. Written and directed by J.J. Abrams, Super 8 is an hour and 51 minutes long and is distributed in wide release by Paramount Pictures. It opens on Friday, June 10.