Set in Lillian, Ohio, J.J. Abrams’ (Star Trek, Mission: Impossible III) latest, Super 8 chronicles Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney), a young boy who struggles to connect with his depressed workaholic of a father, Jack (Kyle Chandler), the town’s Deputy Sherriff. He spends his time playing with monster makeup on the set of his friend, Charles’ (Riley Griffiths) short film, a no-budget zombie flick. Wanting to enter a film festival, they plan the project alongside a ragtag troupe of amateur actors, actresses, and pyrotechnicians that includes Alice (Elle Fanning), who lives with her drunkard dad (Ron Eldard), and Cary (Ryan Lee), who has a certain admiration for cherry bombs, which are used to mimic gunfire and small explosions. But added production value isn’t all that the cast gets when a train derails during one of their shoots, instead, they become embroiled in a conspiracy that has the Air Force (led by Commander Nelec, played by a delightfully asinine Noam Emmerich) scrambling.
The film’s title refers to the Super 8 mm film camera used by the on-screen cast. Noted for its grainy recordings, the cameras were used on sets during the 1960s and ’70s. At the advent of the Digital Age, they were replaced by video cameras. Thus there is an intentional divide between the character’s use of the aged technology and the professional multimillion dollar effects and IMAX special treatment that Abrams’ team employs.
The story, however, which pays homage to Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of a Third Kind and E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, feels both timeless and fresh. It’s where the real depth is since believable character drama, more often than not, makes up for a clichéd and predictable mystery. And although the protagonists are idiosyncratic, they also feel human. Of them, however, Joe is left as the odd man out. He is less of a caricature than the rest of the cast and Abrams instead studies the void left behind by the death of his mother — symbolized by a locket that he holds onto and grips in dangerous situations. Then there is Charles, who, in his eagerness to craft the best story possible, exemplifies most aspiring filmmakers: The bipolar mania, perfectionism, constant complaining, and inflated self-importance. It wouldn’t be surprising if the character was influenced by Abrams himself, who broke into the business at the tender age of 16, when he composed for the Don Dohler film, Nightbeast.
But hiring young leads is incredibly risky. Without the training and life experiences of seasoned thespians, adolescents are often the blandest part of a production. This made casting for Super 8 problematic because, at the core, there is a story of unrequited love between Joe and Alice, who are torn apart by their fathers’ tumultuous relationship. For the film to succeed, this love interest needed to be well-executed. Fortunately, Courtney, a relative newcomer, has ample chemistry with Fanning (Somewhere), his more experienced counterpart. Griffiths, however, lends the most memorable performance; his comedic timing is on-point.
Adults are mostly absent from this coming-of-age fantasy and this strategy works unusually well as Abrams treats his young cast with sophistication and tenderness. As a storyteller, he fills his shots with nostalgic imagery as well as modern beauty but one thing that separates Super 8 from other summer blockbusters is that, amidst the explosions and gunfights, there’s also heart.