Super 8

Directed By: J. J. Abrams

Starring: Joel Courtney, Elle Fanning, Kyle Chandler, Riley Griffiths, Ryan Lee, and Ron Eldard

The Internet is abuzz with talk about the casting for J.J. Abrams's Star Wars: Episode VII.  Expectedly, some Trekkies are still discontent with the fact that Abrams turned to the dark side by ditching the Star Trek franchise and are once again ranting on the web to make their voices heard.  In between Abrams's jobs of living long and prospering and letting the force be with us, he made a wonderful sci-fi gem called Super 8.  Harkening back to the days of E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Abrams steps away from futuristic science fiction and embraces some old school filmmaking.  While he's done great work on Star Trek and has great work ahead on the Star Wars front, this alien flick shouldn't be forgotten.

Because of a tragic accident at the local steel mill in Ohio, Elizabeth Lamb (Caitriona Balfe) has passed away.  She leaves behind her husband Jack (Kyle Chandler) and her 14 year-old son Joe (Joel Courtney).  Jack lays the blame for his wife's passing on alcoholic Louis Dainard (Ron Eldard), the man for whom Elizabeth was covering that day.  Several months later, Joe's best friend Charles Kaznyk (Riley Griffiths) decides to make a zombie movie for an upcoming local film festival.  To do so, Charles needs the help of Joe as well as their friends Preston (Zach Mills) and Martin (Gabriel Basso).  Charles also needs the help of Louis Dainard's daughter Alice (Elle Fanning).  Given the family history between the Lambs and the Dainards, this may prove to be quite a tricky collaboration.  While working together, Joe and Alice surprisingly develop an affection for one another. 

To film a really pivotal scene for Charles's movie, the whole gang goes to the train station as Charles believes this will enhance the ambiance of the film. During the filming, a train passes by the station, and Charles insists that they film the scene during this very moment.  What he doesn't know is that Dr. Woodward (Glynn Turman), one of his teachers at school, has gotten into a pickup truck and plans to drive straight into the oncoming train.  Joe, however, witnesses the looming calamity.  As a massive derailment of the train takes place, the kids narrowly escape harm's way.  What they don't realize is that something else escaped the train as well.  As it turns out, what escaped the derailed train is an alien.  With this creature on the loose, the military soon arrives and launches their investigation into what should have just been a local matter to the casual observer.  Suspecting foul play, the kids launch an investigation of their own.

With the downright lovable sci-fi thriller Super 8, J.J. Abrams takes us back to the 70s in grand style.  We get a healthy dose of some school blockbuster filmmaking.  We get a thrilling mystery full of majesty and wonder.  We get some terrific performances from our young cast.  Most importantly, however, we get a movie that advocates for amateur filmmaking.  Abrams spends a great deal of time focused on Charles's movie The Case — understanding what motivates the kids, the artistic decisions they make in bringing the zombies to undead life, and even their chase for authenticity.  Hell, Abrams titled the actual film based on the amateur filmmaking these kids are doing.  Given the cinematic landscape in which dollars trump artistry, Super 8 is an earnest reminder to appreciate burgeoning filmmakers and their contributions to the art.

Abrams gets Super 8 right as an old school piece.  The costume and set designs are perfect for the era and set the stage.  The grainy, sometimes brownish cinematography emphasizes the decade as well.  The super 8 cameras are emblems of a bygone period, and Abrams just lets them roll.  This is undoubtedly some superb filmmaking for a period piece, but Abrams takes it up a notch or two by creating both satisfying thrills and a sense of wonder that harken back to the past.  Never really showing the alien until the film's climax, Abrams creates a thrill that keeps viewers engaged and curious.  He builds suspense and mystery around the creature by only showing the havoc it's wreaked upon the town — disruptions in electricity, debris flying everywhere, and dogs fleeing.  Once we do actually see the alien, Abrams uses a majestic score to create a sense of wonder and awe.

At the core of Super 8, we have two outstanding performances from Joel Courtney and Elle Fanning.  For his part as Joe Lamb, Courtney is the heart and soul of the film.  He starts as a sad little boy.  In the end, Courtney's character becomes someone with a lot of love in his heart and the only person who really relates to the alien's plight.  Sharing the screen with Courtney as his romantic interest Alice Dainard, Elle Fanning shows she's got the goods at such a young age.  She offers up a very raw and real performance throughout the movie.  Seeming much older and experienced in her demeanor and disposition, Fanning shows that she's got the charm of a leading lady and has the potential to dominate Hollywood in the years to come.  I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the other young supporting actors.  They bring plenty of hilarity to the film as they help Joe and Alice along their journey in comical fashion.

With great filmmaking and acting, Super 8 is an outstanding film all around.  They just don't get much better than this as everyone in the cast and crew deliver nothing but excellence.  This old school blockbuster gets a sober rating.