Teen filmmakers get a lensful of frightening footage in the retro-creepy 'Super 8'
Set in 1979, “Super 8” is a super-deluxe nostalgia trip, courtesy of writer-director J.J. Abrams and producer Steven Spielberg. Anyone adventurous enough to try to keep track of all the movies, TV shows, commercials and celebrities referenced here had better watch very carefully and keep a running tally; otherwise, you’ll miss a Three Mile Island mention here or a “1941” homage there. But the movie is more than just an avalanche of pop-culture pop-ups — it’s also a very 1979 movie, infused with the high-impact visual effects and post-modern perspective of 2011.
For those who missed the days of roller disco, The Knack and spectacularly feathered hair, Abrams wastes little time in immersing his audience in the period. Almost immediately, we’re smacked upside the head with Electric Light Orchestra’s chugging synth-rocker “Don’t Bring Me Down” and reminded that this was the year of director George Romero’s “Dawn of the Dead,” one of the first horror films to combine shocking gore and sharp social commentary.
It was also an era that looks delightfully quaint by today’s standards — kids running around with a then-trendy Super 8 sound movie camera? a bedroom stereo system with a tower of 8-track tapes nearby? — but Abrams embraces that innocence instead of mocking it. There’s a sincerity and a disarming gentleness in “Super 8” that effectively contrasts its increasingly creepy tone.
The material has easily detectable echoes of Spielberg’s “E.T.” and, even more discernibly, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and “Jaws.” In the Ohio hamlet of Lillian, a quartet of barely adolescent, endearingly nerdy boys are putting together their own low-budget zombie movie, in the hopes of qualifying for an amateur film festival. Charles (Riley Griffiths) is the gung-ho director, always on the lookout for “production values” and “mint” footage; Preston (Zach Mills) is the milquetoast-y leading man; Cary (Ryan Lee) is the budding pyromaniac who has temporarily channeled his troubling talents into a reasonably respectable role as the supervisor of the film’s special effects.
Then there’s the mostly introspective Joe (Joel Courtney), the son of town deputy Jackson Lamb (Kyle Chandler). He’s the quietest and perhaps most gifted of the group, a skilled makeup artist slowly recovering from the sudden loss of his mother. The wild card in the bunch is a last-minute addition: Alice (Elle Fanning), a lower-class girl who carries herself like a natural born leading lady and has that mesmerizing aura of maturity and sophistication that some 14-year-olds are blessed with and that all the others vainly strive for. Since Alice’s dad and Joe’s father are embroiled in a fierce feud, naturally their kids become fast friends.
The fledgling filmmakers find more action than they ever bargained for when their camera inadvertently captures a spectacular, terrifying train wreck on the outskirts of town. They also get a good scare, courtesy of a seemingly demented survivor, who tells them, “Do not speak of this — or you and your parents will die!” It doesn’t take long for the group to realize that something that was locked up on that train is now on the loose, creating big trouble for the small town and major headaches for the hard-working Jackson, who suddenly has to dealt with a rash of disappearances and bizarre thefts.
Most of Abrams’ screenplay moves along the lines of “Close Encounters,” carefully building the mystery without giving away too much. It’s only when Abrams finally pulls back the curtain to reveal what he’s been hiding that “Super 8” loses some of its spirit and energy: The finale seems a bit flat and overly familiar compared to the intriguing set-up. (Abrams also goes a bit overboard with the retro-goofiness, allowing a few distracting anachronisms to slip into his dialogue, most notably a Rubik’s Cube joke and a shout-out to the Sony Walkman, neither of which were available in the U.S. in 1979.)
When “Super 8” is on a roll, however, it’s first-rate fun, with some masterfully modulated “jump” scenes and several wonderfully played quieter moments between newcomer Courtney and the striking Fanning, who has no trouble at all finding Alice’s conflicted conscience.
In both his writing and his directing, Abrams demonstrates a real sensitivity where young actors are concerned; the dynamics between Griffiths, Lee and Mills are convincingly goofy without being irritatingly exaggerated, and there’s a powerful poignancy in the painful awkward relationship of Joe and Jackson, who can barely look at each other, much less have the kinds of conversations they need to start. Spielberg had this easy touch in the days of “E.T.,” but largely lost it in later years as the films he produced became increasingly formulaic and mechanical (“Harry and the Hendersons,” “Batteries Not Included,” etc.). Although “Super 8” is first and foremost a chiller, Abrams has given it a sturdy emotional core and has capitalized on every opportunity to put unexpected edges on characters that initially seem to be one-dimensional, such as Alice’s hard-drinking, anguished dad, forcefully played by Ron Eldard.
In a movie that frequently and casually swings between suspense and humor, it makes sense that Abrams follows the eerie ending of “Super 8” with a hilarious kicker that plays out during the end credits: Whatever you do, don’t head for the exit too soon, or you’ll miss one of the movie’s best surprises.
(Note: Not every film is worth spending the extra money to see in IMAX, but “Super 8” is definitely a picture that makes exciting use of the giant screen and multi-channel sound system. In addition to being able to get a better look at all the amusing relics of 1979 that Abrams and his art direction team have dropped into the backgrounds of many of the scenes, you’ll also be treated to a nerve-jangling, teeth-rattling, Oscar-worthy audio mix that’s the next best thing to that supremely ‘70s movie gimmick, Sensurround.)