It’s been a long time since I’ve even wanted to watch a movie primarily featuring the exploits of children, much less been truly engaged by one. My experience viewing J.J. Abrams’ and Steven Spielberg’s “Super 8″ promptly dialed down the reading on my curmudgeon meter.
The story of a group of young teenagers who see life in their small Ohio town spiral into chaos after a military train derailment, “Super 8″ is a masterful blend of acting and storytelling. The protagonist is fourteen year old Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney), a thoughtful boy who recently lost his mother in a factory accident. He and best friend Charles (Riley Griffiths) are working on Charles’ zombie movie, filmed with a Super 8 camera that lends its name to the story. They are assisted by pals Cary (Ryan Lee), Martin (Gabriel Basso), and Preston (Zach Mills), and by pretty Alice Dainard (Elle Fanning), who quickly and amusingly becomes the apple of the boys’ eyes. It’s in the midst of filming one night at the edge of town that the train wrecks in spectacular fashion.
Events quickly pick up from there as the military moves in and an alien creature escaped from the wreck launches a desperate effort to flee Earth entirely, but the plot is overshadowed by the characters and their interactions. The unknown ensemble cast’s portrayals are top-notch, from the awkward blossoming of affection between Joe and Alice, already bound by the tragedy that claimed Joe’s mother when she filled in at the factory for Alice’s hard-drinking father, to the charming single-mindedness of Charles, to the laugh-out-loud hilarity of Martin’s wooden acting and Cary’s pyromania. Even the secondary players shine, particularly Kyle Chandler as Joe’s father Jack, and Ron Eldard as Alice’s father Louis.
“Super 8″‘s special effects are also excellent, as can be expected of any sufficiently funded contemporary picture, but in an unusual and refreshing strategy are used to complement rather than replace plotting and characterization. The fruits of this decision are most apparent in scenes featuring the alien, which attacks with terrifying destructiveness yet is glimpsed only partially and momentarily, enhancing the atmosphere of dread surrounding its appearances.
If you want to experience some of the old Spielberg magic in a modern film, this one is for you. Other movies may have done certain things better, but for my money “Super 8″ is my favorite of 2011.