It’s always thrilling when a filmmaker emerges – to see the movie that truly marks his arrival as someone to watch and pay attention to because he not only has something to say but he knows how to say it.
So it is with J.J. Abrams’ “Super 8,” a great leap forward for someone who already has proven himself as a formidable TV auteur, capable of making the leap to movies by shaking up old franchises (“Mission: Impossible,” “Star Trek”) with a new vision.
But “Super 8” is something else again: the arrival of a director who’s made a movie with the confidence and sensitivity to remind you of the first time you saw “E.T.” It’s a movie that will put you on the edge of your seat, even as it puts a lump in your throat.
Certainly, the nods to Steven Spielberg (this film’s executive producer) are there, beginning with Abrams’ use of a group of kids as the film’s central protagonists – and setting the film in 1979. The story is built around Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney), a youngster first seen sitting silently on a swing set on the day of his mother’s funeral. His friends whisper about how tough this must be, even as his father Jackson (Kyle Chandler), a sheriff’s deputy, interrupts the wake to arrest a scruffy fellow (Ron Eldard) who turns up to offer condolences.
Cut to a few months later. Joe is pretty much back to normal. School is nearly over and Joe is involved with his best friend Charles (Riley Griffiths), a pudgy kid who is a would-be movie-maker. Charles reads filmmaking magazines (again, this is back in the days when they weren’t available at every corner newsstand – particularly not in this little Ohio town) and is making his own Super-8 zombie movie with his friends, to enter into a young filmmaker’s contest.
Charles’ big coup? Getting Alice Dainard (the pubescent Elle Fanning), an out-of-their-league classmate, to play a role – as the main character’s wife – in order to flesh out the story. Even better: The underage Alice has agreed to steal her father’s car and drive them all to the location for their post-midnight shoot.
The location is the local train station, seemingly abandoned. As they rehearse the scene, as Joe shyly applies makeup to Alice, a train appears in the distance: “Production value!” Charles shouts gleefully, whipping his troops into action so they can get an actual train in the background of their shot.
But a pick-up truck suddenly drives on to the tracks and plows head-on into the train, causing it to derail – spectacularly so, in a scene as thrilling and white-knuckle as you hope it would be. The kids run for their lives, leaving the tipped-over camera running and capturing at least part of the train wreck.
What did the camera capture? What was on the train – including in that one freight car where something inside seemed to be hammering huge dents into the sides in an effort to escape? And why was one of the kids’ teachers behind the wheel of the truck that caused the crash?
Those are just some of the questions raised, as the U.S. Air Force swoops in and takes command of the situation. Initially passing it off as just a random accident of no major significance, the military eventually locks down the entire town, without ever revealing what it has, in fact, set loose on small-town America.
Abrams eventually answers all of the questions he poses, though he’s careful not to spell things out in too much detail; you get the facts on the fly, as the kids slowly unravel what’s really going on. Their understanding is basic, which is good enough to keep us going.
What distinguishes Abrams’ film – and allows it to be mentioned in the same breath with “E.T.” – is that he keeps the focus on these kids: on the complex feelings they have that frighten and confuse them, on their multi-layer relationship with parents and other adults, on their resourcefulness despite their seeming powerlessness. Adults underestimate and otherwise dismiss them, though the kids finally are the ones with the crucial details at their command.
Abrams has made a movie about that transition from kid to adult, when youngsters realize that life is not like a movie or a TV show, that bad things do happen from which their parents can’t protect them (or each other). It’s about the dawning of a sense of self-sufficiency, even as you learn to value connections you have taken for granted previously.
The sci-fi stuff? Abrams knows his way around a suspense scene and how to keep you edgy about a monster you haven’t seen. Hey, the guy created the Smoke Monster on “Lost” and kept it as a nerve-wracking threat for several seasons. You don’t need explanations of what you’re being spooked by to know when you should be scared.
Chandler, so good on TV’s “Friday Night Lights,” is just right as the widower who is trying to be a dad even as he has to focus on being a deputy sheriff. He’s good cop-bad cop rolled into one when it comes to his son. But he’s there to serve as an emotional touchstone for young Joel Courtney and his preteen sidekicks – the expressive Griffiths, the astonishingly talented Fanning, and several others – to truly rule this movie.
“Super 8” is a stunner, a movie that sucks you in from the start and spits you out the other end with a sense of wonder to go with the tears in your eyes. It’s what a great summer movie should be – indeed, what a great movie should be anytime. It’s hard to imagine a better studio movie this season.Print This Post