Super 8 is one of the only original science fiction movies this summer, and it's the brainchild of "sense of wonder" twins Steven Spielberg and JJ Abrams. So yeah, there's been a lot of hype about this flick. And no, it's not entirely deserved. But that doesn't mean it isn't a likable, exciting movie.
Probably the best thing about Super 8 is that it's the only young adult film I've seen in ages (other than, perhaps, the latest Harry Potter) that lives up to the promise of the last decade's extraordinary explosion in science fiction novels for young adults. Like most of those novels, Super 8 genuinely respects the autonomy and competence of its teen characters in the face of danger. For that reason, Super 8 is also the true inheritor of E.T. The Extraterrestrial's mantle — while also offering a clever twist on that early-1980s tale of a friendly alien who just wants to go home.
Minor spoilers ahead.
Set in a small Ohio town dominated by a steel mill, Super 8 brings us back to the E.T. era when the 1970s became the 80s. But instead of a sunny suburb where single moms are sweet goofballs and kids race dirtbikes for fun, we're immediately plunked down into a more gritty, realistic scenario. Joe's mother has just been killed in an accident at the mill, and his distant father is pretty much incapable of dealing with her death, plus single parenthood and his job as a deputy. There's a truly heart-wrenching scene early in the film where Joe's father, Jackson, tells Joe that he wants to send him to baseball camp for the summer — because Jackson loved it when he was a kid. Joe, a sweet little guy whose main aspiration is to be a movie makeup artist "like Dick Smith," stares numbly at the camp brochure, and we feel the full weight of his sadness. He's trapped with this man who is supposed to be his father, but knows nothing about about his own son, and he's dealing with it by sending Joe away rather than getting to know him better.
Counterbalancing Joe's helplessness is the hyper-competence of his friends, a group of young teens who are making a pretty awesome zombie movie with a super 8 camera and a lot of fake blood (supplied by makeup whiz Joe). The whole gang of kids is simply terrific, from the control freak director Charles, to the pyromaniac cameraman Cary (who boasts, "I rolled these M-80s myself.") It's not hard to believe that a gang of junior high kids would be organized enough to put together a great movie crew, and when they finally recruit a leading lady in Alice (Elle Fanning), they're ready to spend their summer sneaking out every night to film.
That Abrams establishes early on that these kids are thoughtful, and capable of planning an entire film on their own, makes it entirely believable that they'll survive the ordeal their town is about to go through. Late one night when the crew is filming at the train station, they witness an insanely huge train crash (cue effects that you know director Charles is hoping to create one day in his real movies). And the crash, they discover, was caused when their science teacher rammed his pickup truck into the train. Why would Dr. Woodward do that? And what exactly was it that bashed its way out of the train and disappeared into the night?
The mystery deepens when the military sweeps into town, refusing to tell Jackson anything about the crash or the several people who have disappeared since (including the sheriff). What's brilliant about the film is the deft way Abrams balances the creeping danger of the adult world with kids' film project — now in high gear since the train crash and all the military types running around provide the perfect backdrops for a zombie outbreak movie. Though the crew has its own secret, which is that they captured a movie the night of the train crash. And that movie reveals what we've known all along, which is that there's a seriously pissed off mini-Cloverfield-looking alien in town who is ripping the shit out of everything and kidnapping people.
And this is where Super 8 diverges interestingly from the E.T. tale that inspired it. Both movies are about the relationships forged between an alien creature and a group of boys, and both are credible coming-of-age stories. But in E.T., the alien is mouth-scrunchingly sweet, so gentle and kind that he's a cipher of niceness. I won't give too much away here, but let's just say that the alien in Super 8 acts the way you'd expect anyone to behave when cornered by creeps with an iron cage. It's easy to see the parallel between this alien's wrath and the way Joe has felt beaten up and trapped during his own short time on Earth. Abrams gives us an alien whose motivations are as messy as the human characters', and (mostly) it works.
Where the movie falls down is in the relationships between the crew of teens and those other aliens in town, their parents. Though we can buy that a rough kind of understanding might form between the jocky-but-good Jackson and his makeup-loving kid Joe, it's harder to swallow the disturbing scenes we get of Alice her father Ron, the town drunk. As Joe and Alice grow closer during the film shoot, we see further into Alice's homelife — and it's strongly implied that the situation with her father is borderline abusive. She's terrified of him; he's constantly drunk and violently focused on the idea that his barely-pubescent daughter has a sex life. At one point, Ron screams at Joe, "My daughter is off limits!" It's jarring to see this clearly poisonous relationship depicted so starkly, and then have it just swept under the rug as if it's just your ordinary father/daughter conflict, comparable to a father and son arguing over baseball camp.
When you add this awkwardly-handled relationship to a couple of just plain badly-written moments between Joe and Alice, the film comes out limping — though still swinging, too. As I said earlier, it's terrific to see a movie that acknowledges the competence of young adults. Unlike Harry Potter and his gang, who lead because they are born to it, the crew in Super 8 have skills they brought out in each other by working on a big, complicated project. They're realistic, everyday heroes, scared but dealing with it.
Though it's not a pyrotechnic extravaganza like Star Trek, nor a seriously chilling character study like Let Me In, Super 8 does deliver likable, three-dimensional characters on a scary-fun adventure. No it's not a masterpiece — but it's a solid little movie, and I'd highly recommend it.
Special note: Don't forget to stay for the credits after the movie! You will be rewarded with awesomeness.