Producer Steven Spielberg and writer/director J. J Abrams have given us a nice, nostalgic bit of film-making in SUPER 8
Set in a small Ohio town in 1979, it’s the story of a group of middle-schoolers who accidentally capture a train wreck while they are filming -- with a Super 8 camera -- an entry for the Cleveland Film Festival. As you might guess, there’s something very strange about this train. Abrams keeps CGI special effects to a minimum for the film and goes “old school” to produce the feeling appropriate to the time period. Of course, “old school” effects were cutting edge just a few years ago! SUPER 8 is a scifi/thriller, a coming-of-age piece, and a father/son reconciliation story all in one. And, of course, you’ll see echoes of former efforts by Spielberg and Abrams (E.T., LOST, etc.). In fact, I cynically called it “E.T. on steroids” until I saw the sincerely positive response of the preview audience to this film. I stand corrected!
As the film opens, one of the young film-makers, Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney), who just happens to be the son of Deputy Sheriff Lamb (Kyle Chandler), is trying to deal with the death of his mother in a steel mill accident. His dad is ill-equipped to deal with his own grief, much less his son’s. Joe is the make-up/special effects artist for the kids’ film, titled “The Case”, which involves a detective, his wife, and zombies. His best friend Charles (Riley Griffiths) is the writer and director. Cary (Ryan Lee), Preston (Zach Mills) and Martin (Gabriel Basso) round out the little group. Charles decides to recruit a girl whom he and Joe, unbeknownst to each other, have a crush on to play the detective’s wife. Elle Fanning does an outstanding job as Alice Dainard, daughter of a drunken trouble-maker, Louis Dainard (Ron Eldard). It turns out that Alice and Joe have something in common: both are motherless. Alice’s mother isn’t dead; she deserted the family due to her husband’s multitude of problems. Alice has “borrowed” her dad’s car to drive the boys to the railway depot to film a crucial scene. The train’s passing was to be included in the scene, but, instead, the train derails as it tries to avoid a pick-up truck on the tracks and wrecks spectacularly and very dangerously.
OK, so parts of the film defy credulity. It’s hard to believe that the kids would emerge uninjured after being so close to this disaster, but it’s worth suspending disbelief to watch them try to deal with the danger unleashed by the wreck. They make their way over to the wrecked pick-up, only to find that it was driven by one of their teachers, Dr. Woodward (Glyn Turman), who obviously knows much more than he’s telling. The injured man warns them that they, and their families, will be killed if anyone finds out that they witnessed the incident. They make a pact to never tell, and return to their homes. Meanwhile, some very strange things begin to happen in the town, and when the sheriff disappears, Joe’s dad finds himself in charge.
The train, it turns out, was an Air Force transport. The military behaves in a single-minded and inflexible manner about the whole thing. Deputy Lamb goes head-to-head with the obsessive Colonel Nelec (Noah Emmerich) and grows increasingly frustrated with the obvious cover-up. People -- and appliances -- begin to go missing, and something big would seem to be on the loose. In true Abrams style, you’ll hear this something and see the effects of it long before you ever actually see it. The Air Force starts a wild fire as a diversion and evacuates the town. The boys, however, escape, and with the help of a local stoner, Donny (David Gallagher), manage to get back. Alice is one of the missing, and Joe is desperate to find her. The boys know they must figure out the “truth” to rescue Alice. How the story plays out, and how Joe and his dad re-connect, keeps the audience totally involved.
The absence of big-name stars is a plus. Kyle Chandler is probably the best-known of the performers. You’re not distracted by star power, so you can focus on the story and relationships of the characters. The young actors show skill and depth even as they talk and behave like “kids” -- another plus for the film. You’d have to be made of stone not to care what happens to them. All of the actors in the film do a good job, so you’ll be happy to overlook the less believable parts of the story. After all, it’s science fiction -- not a documentary.
(Be sure to stay a while as the credits roll because the finished product of the boys’ efforts, “The Case”, is shown in full. You won’t regret it; it’s hilarious!)