By Leah Zak | The Playlist June 1, 2011 at 7:01AM
The first teaser for “Super 8” debuted in front of “Iron Man 2” way back in early May of 2010, featuring a single sequence of a violent train collision and a mystery car containing something ominous, large, strong and very scary. The helmer behind such box office hits as the “Star Trek” reboot as well as some of the more intriguing fare to show up on television in the last few years, throw the name J.J. Abrams onto a project and speculation – and excitement – begins to run rampant. Was it a monster movie? A sequel to “Cloverfield”? Some even broke down the ending shot of this first teaser, frame by frame, in hopes of some clue as to what was to come. Now, just over a year later, we’re closing in on the film’s debut, and while newer trailers indicate that early speculation of a moody, more fierce film might have been a little off base, Abrams still delivers an edge-of-your-seat thriller with heart and humor that we predict will have audiences buzzing.
But the story begins solemnly. Joe Lamb (promising newcomer Joel Courtney) has just lost his mom in what, we gather, was a brutal accident at the factory where she worked. An only child, he’s left with Dad, the local sheriff's deputy (brought to the life by the stoic quietness that is Kyle Chandler) and who, in a classic father-son relationship trope, is not big on emotions. The Lamb boys struggle to co-exist in their mourning, not finding strength in each other but in distractions, the elder Lamb in his duties as deputy and Joe with his gaggle of buddies and at the house of his best friend Charles (a charmingly ambitious Riley Griffiths) – who along with several brothers and sisters, offer an alternatively warm, robust home to Joe with open arms.
Jump to the last day of school and Joe, Charles and co. are making plans to spend the summer completing Charles’ zombie-themed cinematic masterpiece. In an effort to add some heart to his story, the aspiring auteur writes the part of The Wife into his script, and to the surprise of his friends, manages to snag the school’s hottie/tough girl Alice (Elle Fanning) for the role. The move also introduces the heart into “Super 8,” as the sparks between Alice and Joe lead to a story of first love that really serves as the center of the film.
Soon, however, the summer quickly erupts into something much more sinister. While filming a climatic scene at a train station late one night, the little crew find themselves lucky enough to have an actual train coming through -- “Production value!” yells Charles in delight -- but what they don’t bargain for is a rogue pick-up truck coming onto the tracks and hitting the speeding train head-on, resulting in the violent crash from that first teaser trailer, and lots and lots of explosions. Only nearly escaping intact, the kids go back to investigate and find that the driver of the truck was none other than their mysterious biology teacher, Dr. Woodward. The dying man warns them to tell no one of the incident – a threat ominous enough to send the kids running as a group of flashlights approaches, and keep their silence about what they saw. However, as the Air Force rolls in and increasingly strange events start occurring around town, the weight of what they have witnessed becomes clear, and the group is ultimately called into action when one of their own goes missing.
Set in the summer of ’79 in small town America, “Super 8” is affluent in nostalgia, but that also comes from the heavy influence of Spielberg’s work from the late '70s and '80s. And while yes, he is a producer on the film, he’s also the helmer behind movies that inspired generations -- including Abrams, as shades of “E.T.” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and "Jurassic Park" can all be felt here. Through the eyes of his child protagonists, Spielberg made a career on capturing the genuine wonder and imagination of the unknown as well as the child-like innocence and compassion it can take to understand it, and “Super 8” is absolutely a nod to that form.
Packed full of solid character actors, there are few, if any, weak links, with even supporting players leaving a solid impression (particularly Charles’ family, which in just a few scenes adds distinctly to the warmth of the movie.) The young stars of “Super 8,” many of them first timers, carry the film well, and the dynamic between the group of friends is “Sandlot”-comparison worthy. Fanning and Courtney shine in the leads, bringing a genuine heart to the love story at the center of the film. But responsible for most of the laughs is Ryan Lee who, as the group’s pyromaniac and special effects adviser, Carey, fits perfectly into that role of the friend your parents wish you didn't have.
And oh yes. The cargo. While we’d hate to spoil it here, the slow roll-out of Abrams' CGI creation builds in edge-of-your-seat suspense to a genuinely frightening reveal, when we see full on what the town is up against. And while yes, a CGI creation it definitively is (will technology ever reach a point where CGI becomes indistinguishable?), we (well, this writer) jumped. More than once.
While there is so much to love about this movie, there are points when the multiple story threads seem hurried, particularly in a clunky scene that goes from climactic confession to terribly threatening without much finesse. And the amount of sentimentality, while mostly a welcome by-product of nostalgia, is taken occasionally over the edge by the recurring appearance of the deceased Ms. Lamb's locket which becomes a rather heavy-handed metaphor we could have done without. But ultimately these are trifles in what to us is a hugely successful addition to the Summer Blockbuster genre.
And if it feels like we’re leaving things out, we are, but part of the fun here is being along for the ride, so we recommend you avoid the spoilers as best you can. (Also, definitely be sure to stick around for the credits.) It’s highly unlikely you will regret it, we certainly didn’t – and you don't have too long to wait, “Super 8” hits theaters June 10th. [A]