On Friday June 10th JJ Abrams follows up his 2009 Star Trek movie with Super 8. With the help of producer Steven Spielberg, Abrams has returned to his own childhood for a mysterious monster movie, which turns out to be an effective coming-of-age story. Find out more in the TrekMovie.com review. [Some Spoilers Ahead]
Review: JJ Abrams "Super 8"
Back in 2009 director JJ Abrams told me that before he could consider returning to helm another Star Trek movie, he would want to do something different for his third feature – something that wasn’t part of a franchise (like Star Trek and Mission Impossible III). That something else became Super 8, a very personal film for Abrams, who wrote a script set in the 1979 of his own youth which evokes an era and the style of films which were formative for him. In the same interview Abrams also said that "the dream version of any job is to chose the job because you love the job," and that passion can be seen in Super 8, which has been accurately described as a love letter to Steven Spielberg, who Abrams even brought in as a co-producer for Super 8. And according to Spielberg, Super 8 is actually the "first true JJ Abrams movie."
While the story of Super 8 is evocative of Spielberg’s Amblin movies of the late 70s and early 80s, especially Close Encounters, Jaws, E.T. and Goonies, it is also classic Abrams. Super 8 is about a group of kids from a small town in Ohio who, while shooting a zombie movie for a film festival, witness a massive train crash which unleashes a mysterious something trapped in a box car. But of course Abrams, who has famously never opened his childhood ‘Mystery Box,’ spends much of the rest of the film slowly dripping out tidbits of why the train crashed and what exactly was it that escaped from that box car and is causing all sorts of strange occurrences in the town.
A train crash sets a group of kids on an adventure in "Super 8"
Super 8 is more than just homage to 1970s cinema – it is really a mashup of a sci-fi film, a monster movie, a family drama, a love story, and a coming of age film. In fact, the best parts of the film is the character development and personal story of this group of kids. Like with Star Trek, Super 8 opens very strong with some emotional scenes which set the tone for film’s hero, Joe Lamb (played by first-time actor Joel Courtney). Abrams is very adept at coaxing out excellent performances from the kids who carry the film, especially Lamb, Elle Fanning as Joe’s the love interest Alice Dainard, and Riley Griffiths (also in his first film) who plays Joe’s best friend Charles and the director of the zombie movie which sparks the entire film. And Cary (played by Ryan Lee), adds a lot of fun comic relief for the film, not just by being the ubiquitous goofy kid with braces, but also through his recurring issues with pyromania.
Abrams working with Joel Courtney and Riley Griffiths on "Super 8"
While Super 8 is a JJ Abrams-directed / Steven Spielberg-produced summer genre movie, it shouldn’t be seen expecting a big spectacular visuals-filled tentpole like Star Trek. While ILM are back with Abrams providing excellent effects, especially in the extra-long train crash sequence, at its core Super 8 really is more of a smaller family drama, with a relatively low budget. The payoffs in this film are much more to do with Joe and Alice’s arcs with their fathers (would it be an Abrams project without daddy issues?), then it is about fighting a mysterious monster. The irony is that the monster plot ends up being a bit thin, with some murky sci-fi exposition late in the film and disappointingly two-dimensional bad guys in the form of the Air Force personnel who descend on the small town to try and contain the situation. Star Trek fans will likely come away wanting to know more about the creature at the heart of the mystery, who ends up having a bit of a Borg-like hobby of assimilating technology. But all that really doesn’t matter as the film still works, carried by the kids and their adventures, including a heroic cave rescue evocative of the Mark Twain classic "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer."
"Super 8" is best when focused on the families – and not with the scary thing they are staring at
Adding to mix of a quieter film is Abrams own directing style. Yes there are some periodic lens flares, but in Super 8 he mostly eschews shaky cam and frenetic pacing seen in his Lost pilot, Mission: Impossible III and Star Trek. This more subtle approach, helped by cinematographer Larry Fong (Watchmen), is all part of evoking the look of the films of the era.
The Air Force team in "Super 8" led by Colonel Nelec (Noah Emerich) are your standard "nothing to see here" cardboard cutouts
The nostalgia in Super 8 is thick, without becoming over the top parody. Anyone born in or before the 70s will recognize the world lovingly recreated by Abrams and production designer Martin Whist (Cloverfield). Trekkies "of a certain age" (and lets face it, many of us are) will recognize the slight touches right down to AMC Pacer, Pillsbury Space Food and Mattel Electronic Football. Probably the only "weren’t the late 70s funny" in-your-face reference was a scene with an early Sony Walkman (which may be an anachronism as they probably shouldn’t be around in the US until 1980). This is all effectively enhanced by a soundtrack by Michael Giacchino which is augmented by selections of music from this era between 70s disco and 80s new wave, including songs from Blondie and The Cars.
There really isn’t any story reason why Super 8 is set in 1979 except that is when JJ Abrams was 13 himself. The story could have easily been set today with kids using HD video cameras, but hopefully young audiences will still feel an emotional connection to the kids and enjoy a trip back to their parents childhoods (OMG Dad, how did you live without the Internet?).
In the end Super 8 is an excellent feel-good movie and shows a continued evolution and extension of range for JJ Abrams as a director and storyteller. If you like your summer movies to be long on explosions and short on story, then maybe wait for Transformers: Dark of the Moon (which actually looks pretty good). Super 8 has plenty of thrilling action (and its fair share of explosions), but what makes it work are the characters. So if you want a fun, mysterious, scary adventure with a group of kids you can’t help but root for, then you wont go wrong by seeing this film. Super 8 will make you feel young again.
JJ Abrams is back with "Super 8"
Super 8 opens wide on Friday, June 10. Here are some newly released clips: