J.J. Abrams has not made a lot of films, but each film has been very good, embracing the genre and giving fans something to celebrate. Even "Mission Impossible III", derided because of Cruise's shenanigans, was very good, better than the first two installments. But each film has been a stepping stone. Considering the quality of these films, the possibility of a filmmaker of Abrams' skill and caliber working on a personal project has been tantalizing.
Now, with "Super 8", Abrams makes a film based on his own idea. He blends all of his superlative filmmaking skills with a personal story and the effort is almost magical. "Super 8" is by far the best film I have seen this year. And it will take a lot for a new film to take this position away. It just may end up as the best film of the year.
Set in small town Ohio, in 1979, a group of kids gets together to make a film using their super 8 cameras. Originally a zombie film, the director, Charles (Riley Griffiths), a pudgy kid from a large, noisy family, decides his magnum opus needs more drama, so he enlists the help of Alice (Elle Fanning), who his friend and cameraman, Joe (Joel Courtney) has a crush on. The whole group sneaks out at midnight and heads to the local train station. As a train approaches, Charles shouts for the crew to get ready, he wants to capture the "production value" of the train speeding by. But a truck soon appears and begins driving directly for the locomotive. The kids watch in horror as the truck crashes into the train and the whole thing derails. They run for their lives, trying to escape the carnage. As the dust begins to clear, they realize there have been no injuries amongst them and run off just as ominous government agencies begin to arrive to do the clean-up. Charles and Joel also find the camera. It is broken, but they decide to develop the film anyway. Over the next few days, Joel's dad, Jackson, the Sheriff (Kyle Chandler) begins to realize something strange is going on; dogs begin to disappear, then his boss is missing, then the government steps in and gives him a story about the train wreck. Jackson confronts Nelec (Noah Emmerich), the leader of the army's 'clean-up' efforts. Just as the rumors begin to fly, and stories of mysterious sightings begin to circulate, the town is evacuated because of a wild fire. Joel and his friends try to escape to figure out what is going on.
From the moment "Super 8" begins, you know you are in for something special. Abrams sets the film in 1979 which also seems to be a homage to the sort of film his mentor, and producer of the film, Steven Spielberg made during the same period. Everything about the film seems authentic and real. People are wearing new Walkmans. The clothes and cars are all period specific. The attitudes are even a little more innocent. Even better, when Abrams decides to feature some new-fangled item, like the Walkman, for instance, it becomes a part of the story. This takes the moment from being a simple wink-wink nudge-nudge type of thing and shows how clever Abrams really is. It is very easy to make a visual reference like this. It is much more difficult to make it a believable part of the story. Abrams always does the more difficult and makes it work.
Charles is part of a large, noisy family who seems to be bursting out of the walls of their house. Yet, there is always room for Joe at the table. Joe and Charles are best friends and this helps to make the film seem even a little more nostalgic. In fact, there seem to be more similarities in this film to Spielberg's "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" than to the oft-mentioned "E.T.". Charles large family and their crowded dinner table are similar to the Neary family's. At one point, an electrician is fixing a power line. He stands in the bucket on his truck and rises toward the junction box. Roy Neary was also an electrician who is trying to fix massive power outages. "Close Encounters" is set in Indiana, "Super 8" in Ohio, Both feature people from small town America dealing with something they could never have imagined.
The real key to the success of "Super 8" is the kids. Everyone of them gives a good performance and really raises the bar for future child actors. Joel Courtney plays Joe, the son of the local Sheriff. A family tragedy puts a strain on the relationship between the two and Joe escapes the pressures of his everyday life with his large group of friends. Courtney is just so natural, so at ease, he never seems like he is acting. He deals with his grief, with his dad, with the drama in his town like anyone his age would. They escape into the making of their film. Joe is also extremely nervous when Charles announces he has asked Alice to act in the film because he has a huge crush on Alice and becomes a bit tongue-tied. Joe becomes the hero of the film, fighting every inch of the way to find out what is going on and then fighting to end the problem. It is a very good, richly observed performance. More amazing, this is Joel Courtney's first film.
Riley Griffiths plays Charles, the director of the film the kids are working on. It is difficult to tell for sure, but I will bet that this character is closely modeled after Abrams when he was a kid. Charles is a funny guy; his face always buried in a movie magazine, thinking of new scenes, new ideas to make their film that much better. He has clearly read everything he could possibly get his hands on and relishes every bit of it, even the stuff he doesn't completely understand. At the train station, he walks around framing the picture with his hands; he seems obsessed with capturing 'production values', like the real train passing. When they retrieve the camera after the wreck, they take the film to the local photo shop and send it away to be processed. His performance is funny, but not overly jokey; he is just a normal kid who loves everything about filmmaking. More amazing, this is Riley Griffith's first film as well.
Elle Fanning, the veteran of the group, is very good. Alice seems intrigued to be involved in the film, but she is also asked to help provide the transportation for the group, which puts her on edge when the Sheriff's son shows up. She doesn't have a driver's license and is afraid of getting into trouble. But Joe quickly puts her at ease. When they arrive at the train station, they are all amazed by her acting ability. Throughout the course of the film, she and Joe spend a lot of time together and become closer and their relationship provides many sweet innocent moments to the film.
The rest of the kids are all great. Each is different, fun and unique.
Kyle Chandler does a great job as Jackson, the man who is a Sheriff first and a dad to Joe second. He quickly realizes something is going on and becomes even more determined to figure things out when he meets Nelec and realizes they aren't telling him the whole truth. His town is experiencing something big, and it consumes him, so it takes him a while to realize his son is getting into mischief. But when he does, he quickly puts a stop to it. Then he becomes busy again, leaving Joe to his own devices. The relationship between the two is not good, and hasn't been good for a long time. Then, the family tragedy only pulls them further apart. Chandler does a very good job of showing us all of the different responsibilities Jackson is dealing with.
Toby Emmerich adds another shady government/ villain-type role to his resume. The role is good, believable and suitable for the story. But the character actor has played this role before, many times.
Ron Eldard plays Louis, Alice's no-good dad. Louis is haunted by many demons and adds complexity to the film.
The real beauty of "Super 8" is that Abrams is simply a great filmmaker. He seems determined to make films in which he reveals as little as possible about the creature/ monster/ alien/ threat to the main characters as possible. In "Cloverfield", a film he helped write and produce, the threat is viewed in brief snippets, often in grainy cell phone or camcorder footage. For the majority of the film, you never see it fully. This does two things. It makes the menace more believable and it creates more suspense. Because we can't see the whole thing, we are less likely to find fault in it, or to disbelieve in the existence of it. Also, because the threat is revealed in small, fleeting moments, we are never sure when it will show up. I know some people don't like this film, but the cinema verite style, the unknown cast and the snippets of footage of the creature all served to create a memorable monster film.
Abrams continues this same sort of idea in "Super 8". The threat to this small town is not revealed for a long time. But to maintain suspense, we see bits of what it can cause. Joe watches through small, high windows as things fly into the air. The electrician watches things happening in a maintenance building in the distance. Even when we are placed close to the action, Abrams uses some fairly brilliant methods to hide the identity of the threat.
When everything starts to fall into place and we realize what is going on, it all makes sense and we are committed to the ride because we have spent so much time in this universe, with these characters.
It is also unusual (unfortunately) for a summer film to capture any emotion, let alone anything that could seem real and move us. In "Super 8", Abrams sets up the story with a sad event, which helps to inform us of the relationship between Joe and Jackson. And throughout the story, we see how strained their life together is, how difficult. And this all leads to a very emotional moment, which I confess, made me tear up.
Ultimately, "Super 8" has moments that are funny, scary, suspenseful, exciting, dramatic and more. It has everything. Better yet, everything seems necessary to the characters and the story.
A couple of weeks before the film was released, I watched the trailer for "Super 8" before another highly anticipated summer film. After the trailer, someone mumbled "E.T., phone home" causing some laughter. But this remark is more of a compliment than a dig. Abrams has captured the same sort of innocence, the same sort of wonder Elliot and his brother and sister experience in "E.T." And because of this, he captures the same sort of innocence, the same sort of wonder for us to relive.
If it sounds like I am gushing, I am. Go see this movie. Go. Go already.