J.J. Abrams’ “Super 8″ really is like a child’s Super 8 film, with all the good and bad that that comparison suggests. It’s ambitious and unfocused, imaginative and contrived. It’s flawed, but it’s also really close to being a truly wonderful film. There were parts that I absolutely adored. And there were parts I borderline hated.
The film itself is almost as bifurcated as my reaction. Maybe that’s part of the problem. It begins, with incredible promise, as the story of a group of young teenagers let loose on their small Ohio town for summer vacation in 1979. They’re making a Super 8 movie about a cop investigating a series of zombie murders: Charles (Riley Griffiths) is the director. Martin (Gabriel Basso) is the lead actor. Cary (Ryan Lee) is the pyromaniac and pyrotechnics expert. And Joe (Joel Courtney), whose father Jack (Kyle Chandler) is a deputy sheriff in town, does the sound, makeup, and models. Joe’s mother died a few months earlier in a mill accident, leaving Jack an emotional wreck and leaving Joe with his friends, their movie, and not much else.
Charles, perhaps voicing the fears of Abrams himself, worries his movie might be too heavy on special effects and too light on characters you really care about, so he writes a part for the cop’s wife and casts Alice (Elle Fanning). Alice is pretty and a natural, untrained actor. Her entrance into this group previously populated only by boys shakes things up in the best way possible. The scenes between the kids as they work on their movie in cluttered bedrooms and noisy diners are full of charm and authenticity. This is one half of the film.
The other half begins when the group is out filming at the train station one night as a train comes hurtling down the tracks. “Production values!” Charles yells, and they all scramble into position. As they’re shooting, a truck drives into the path of the train and derails it in a massive special effects sequence. Suddenly the pressures and complications of adulthood — or maybe just the demands of large-scale mainstream filmmaking — have invaded the kids’ previously humdrum lives. Now they can’t just focus on their little film; they’ve got to also contend with a massive government conspiracy and an escaped passenger from the train whose size and strength suggests he’s not from Ohio. The metaphor’s right there for anyone who wants to see it: the director trying to make a movie about life as it’s lived who has to throw in some aliens too just to make it commercial.