Abrams is a bit younger than I am, but my friend Tom and I had our own Super 8 years in the early 1970s. In 1979, film was about to give way to video cameras, which then were not quite yet affordable for the home market. To make amateur movies you plunked down five bucks or so for a Super 8 movie cartridge that you plugged into your Super 8 movie camera. You ended up with about three minutes of film. What made Super 8 “super”? It was still 8mm film, but its sprocket holes were narrower, allowing for a somewhat larger screen. Mostly you made silent movies but if you had one of the fancier cameras you could record sound as well. However, it was an affordable hobby, even for a bunch of teenagers on an allowance.
J.J. Abrams at least does a good job of recapturing his youth. Not since Dazed and Confused has the late 1970s been so faithfully rendered at the movies. Thankfully, Super 8 is a better movie than Dazed and Confused. That it is populated with unknown young actors is part of its charm. None of its adult actors are box office names either. Whether young or old, the acting is uniformly good with Elle Fanning perhaps the only breakaway new actor in the film (at least to me). She plays Alice Dainard, the hot young blonde at the middle school from a dysfunctional single parent family where the Dad tends to drink all day. Alice joins a bunch of nerdy and antisocial boys as an actress in their zombie movie. She quickly leaves the boys speechless when they discover, in addition to her Emma Watson-like appearance (just without the British accent) that she is a stunning actress. She is not the only teen who is a product of a single parent family. Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) lost his mother to an accident at the local foundry. His mother died tragically while substituting for Alice’s father, who was stone dead drunk that day and could not report to work.
Things get really weird when they shoot a scene at an old train depot outside of town. A train, apparently chartered by the U.S. Air Force, comes barreling through town. They use the train as an unexpected character in their pivotal scene. No one expects the train to crash, but this happens only because a truck gets on the track and deliberately runs headfirst into the train. The derailment is huge and nasty, and it’s amazing the youth are not killed. With all the mayhem they don’t notice that something big and powerful escaped from the train in the train wreck. There are also these funky metal things that vibrate and look sort of like a Rubik’s Cube, one of which Joe takes one home as a souvenir.
Soon all sorts of weird things are happening in their sleepy town of Lillian, Ohio. Big metallic things like cars are getting tossed around, family pooches are on the lam and lights flicker and buzz a lot. The local sheriff goes missing, leaving Joe’s father, a local deputy, to try to manage the police department. Meanwhile, the Air Force has sealed off much of the crash site and don’t seem inclined to share much information with the local police. Suffice to say if you have heard some of the rumors about Area 51 at Edwards Air Force Base in Nevada, you can discern something otherworldly is at work.
So this movie is basically a “what if a bunch of nerdy kids had a close encounter with a bad-ass alien” movie. This has, in fact, been done before, many times in fact. The only distinguishing difference here is that J.J. Abrams uses this recurring movie plot to relive his own teen years with an eerie and almost natural authenticity. I guess after the success of Star Trek he’s entitled. The movie’s real energy though comes simply from the relationship between these teens and the various personal issues they are struggling with. The alien stuff turns out to be mostly a distraction. Any teens dealing a powerful extraterrestrial are going to find themselves freaked out by the experience. It might have been more interesting to put these teens through tests of their mettle that would have been more true to life, such as a kidnapping.
Overall, it’s a well executed movie with enjoyable characters. You may miss the best part of the movie if you shuffle out immediately after the credits start. Instead, during the credits you get to see the teen’s completed home movie, which is quite fun. As for aliens trying to go home like E.T. (the plot must have looked familiar to producer Steven Spielberg), yawn, wish I could have phoned home that one. That part didn’t need to be rendered yet again.
Super 8 is not really a bad movie, just a disappointment because it could have been so much better. The premise was interesting but was needlessly diminished by special effects and memes we’ve seen too often in other movies. J.J. Abrams should have used his time taking us back to 1979 for better effect, for there is a richness in those nostalgic memories that could have been better mined with a different plot.
3.1 on my four-point scale.