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'Super 8': J.J. Abrams and Steven Spielberg's Latest Looks To Rekindle Old School Amblin Magic

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Super 8, the latest from J.J. Abrams and Steven Spielberg, provides a nice trip down memory lane, but there's nothing like the real thing.Super 8

The Goonies. Stand by Me. E.T. Close Encounters. It’s been at least thirty years since we have seen a family oriented adventure film of that caliber.

Hell, even Steven Spielberg hasn’t come close to replicating that magic since the release of Jurassic Park  in 1993. J.J. Abrams, however, is glad to step up to the plate. His latest, Super 8 , is an outright love letter to early Spielberg, and 80’s kid-driven adventure classics.

The film starts with an adult tragedy, but the focus never really leaves the group of pre-teens that ground the story. This group of close friends is filming a movie to be entered in the local film festival. The stock characters are all here, though the performers do manage to bring some flair to their respective roles. There is the heavy set kid (Riley Griffiths), the loud mouth with a penchant for danger (Ryan Lee), the geek…etc. Joe (Joel Courtney) emerges as the lead, as does Alice (an excellent Elle Fanning), a spitfire who is the token tomboy of the group.

While filming at a train station late night, the youngins unfortunately bear witness to a horrific accident when a pickup truck hurls itself in front of an incoming train, causing a massive derailment. (The film's sole, spectacular action set piece.) As the wreckage piles up, the camera remains turned on, catching all of the action, as the kids run to flee the accident before military arrives.

When the aftermath makes big headlines the next day, Charles suggests to Joe that they fix the broken camera and use the footage as a backdrop for their student film. This proves complicated as military has now swarmed the area, raising suspicions that something more dangerous is afoot. This is accompanied by several strange occurrences, such as the sudden disappearance of local dogs, as well as extensive property damage to a car dealership and local gas station. These happenings have the town in a frenzy and Joe’s father Jackson (Kyle Chandler), also the local deputy, scrambling around for answers. What could be causing the destruction and why is the military presence so strong?Super 8 photo: Paramount Pictures

Without giving anything else away, the rest of the film leads the kids on an adventure to uncover the truth and save the day. It is hardly a spoiler to reveal that an extra-terrestrial being of sorts is an ingredient in this mix, and that some of the second half of the film dabbles in more horror oriented elements.

This monster aspect, which is interestingly the weakest part of the entire film, mirrors Stephen King more so than Stephen Spielberg. The problem is that the subplot is entirely mishandled, and the monster themes aren’t fleshed out enough, taking a backseat to the rest of the film.

The adult child character relationships also suffer a bit. Two characters have broken parent relationships which respectively receive big moments in the third act, but the power is limited due to the lack of development between those characters. Joe is provided with a brief raw confrontational moment with his father Jackson over his mother’s death, but that scene doesn’t hold a candle to a touching moment between Alice and Joe in which she recounts the day of his mother’s accident.

 

That brings us to the things that do work in the film, primarily the strong acting in the group of kids, with two obvious standout performances. Both Fanning and Courtney have great chemistry, and show notable ranges of emotion and depth. The young Fanning leads the way, and from the looks of it might give older sister Dakota a run for her money in the future. The rest of the youth cast all pull strong performances, the third runner up being Griffiths, an engaging screen presence who tries to do more with his standard character.

So what about the story? Well, director Abrams is more successful than Abrams the screenwriter in this scenario. The script for Super 8 meshes many different elements, from scary monster invasion to coming of age drama, to larger than life adventure. However, too often the film feels like a greatest hits, a collection of elements that made other movies great, without much to tie it all in cohesively. As a result, this often feels cobbled together. Abrams has a confident directorial hand and certainly has crafted a fun, moving, thrilling summer entertainment experience overall; it’s just that the end product doesn’t exactly prove as successful as the films it emulates.  

As the third act of Super 8 drew to close, this viewer definitely got a little misty eyed. Who knows if the movie tapped into a sense of nostalgia that caused me to yearn for those great childhood movies, or if it was merely a result of the film’s craft. Either way, Abrams managed to tap into at least some of the sparkle that those earlier films radiated, and for that, moviegoers should be thankful. Super 8 is certainly a worthwhile trip down memory lane.

Contact Jim Teti at jteti@philly2philly.com

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Pictures courtesy of Paramount.