If summer blockbusters are supposed to be all about CGI spectacle and loud explosions, than somebody should tell J.J. Abrams.
“Super 8,” his new film as both writer and director, is unlike any summer blockbuster we’ve seen in quite some time. It has moments of pure exhilaration, while managing to find time to ruminate on family values, friendship and adolescent love.
Much of the film should be kept a secret prior to an audience’s first viewing, as is necessary with most of Abrams’ creative endeavors. “Super 8” isn’t really a movie with unexpected twists and turns, but the feeling of anticipating and the unexpected adds a certain charm to the viewing experience.
The story follows a group of kids who witness a bizarre train accident while filming a movie of their own. When military personnel immediately arrive on the scene of the crash, the kids know that it’s time to get out of there.
Once their small Midwestern town of Lillian is invaded by these military forces, the kids decide to keep their mouths shut about being witnesses to the accident. When it becomes increasingly clear that the military is looking for something rather than investigating the crash, the adventure really begins.
Much has been made of Steven Spielberg’s involvement with “Super 8.” He serves as executive producer of the film and has brought along his production banner Amblin Entertainment, which has produced a number of films that “Super 8” shares a cinematic lineage with.
While the film certainly is in the spirit of Amblin-produced films like “The Goonies” and most of all “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial,” it thankfully doesn’t feel like an homage or rip-off of what has come before it.
While we are fortunate to have such a well-crafted piece of summer entertainment only a week after the exceptional “X-Men: First Class,” “Super 8” feels like a cut above even that film.
The fact is, that even with Spielberg having overseen production of the similarly plotted “Transformers,” “Super 8” has a sense of originality and creativity sorely lacking in most mainstream films today – mostly because it has no pre-existing ties with established properties or film franchises.
While the lead child in the film, played by newcomer Joel Courtney, stumbles upon the creature that haunts the town of Lillian much like Shia Labeouf’s character finds an Autobot in “Transformers,” there’s a sense of wonder and mystery enveloping this scene that was missing from “Transformers.”
The cast that has been assembled is fantastic, with Courtney and “Somewhere” actress Elle Fanning really making the most of their screen time. With recent film series like “Twilight” offering questionable models for young relationships, Fanning and Courtney’s affection is sweet, innocent and not the least bit forced.
This is a movie about passionate and creative children who are coming into their young adult years through a catastrophic event taking place in their hometown. What is most enchanting about “Super 8” is that it doesn’t provide you with answers to every question the film poses.
While it would be nice to imagine what happens to these children once the credits roll, it’s through the lessons they’ve learned about family, friends and love that you can only wish that they become well-rounded individuals as they grow up. The film is self-contained, not trying to set you up for a sequel that’s going to be released a year from now.
While some of the film’s moments of sentimentality can come off as a bit laughable, there is still a strong sense of warmth within each of these key moments. A particular exchange between Courtney’s character and one of his friends involving their mutual admiration for Fanning’s character is as funny as it is heartbreaking – reminding us of the triumphs and letdowns of adolescence.
“Super 8” deals with real issues and emotion while still offering thrills and laughs to help wash down some of the more touching and even sad moments. Abrams doesn’t possess the filmmaking skills of his idol Spielberg, but it’s going to be interesting to see where he goes creatively from here.
“Super 8” is the film to beat this summer because it possesses most of the qualities that used to make summer films so enjoyable. Perhaps more importantly, it stands as a film that you may want to revisit somewhere down the road.