The opening scene of “Super 8” is deceptively simple. The scene focuses on an old, manual sign stating how many days it’s been since the last accident in this factory setting. A man climbs a ladder and removes all three digits. He puts up a 1. This is vital exposition in less than a minute without a word spoken, yet a punch delivered. Someone has had an accident, and we are transported to the house, a simple house, where that accident victim is being waked. It is the home of Deputy Jackson Lamb, now a widower, and his 13-year-old son Joe. Young Joe sits outside on a swing, fingering a locket. His mother’s locket, we learn, and he will treasure it throughout the film.
The neighbors from right across the street (parents of Joe’s best friend Charles) worry about how well Deputy Lamb (Kyle Chandler) can take care of Joe now that he’s a single parent. They’re the Kaznyks, who have a rowdy houseful of normal, happy, healthy kids. Jessica Tuck as Mrs. Kaznyk has enough on her hands but would still play second mother to Joe when needed. Mr. Kaznyck, as played by Joel McKinnon Miller, is a good dad, a good neighbor, and keeps an eye out for Joe as well. Young Joe’s friends gather around a table of food and talk around the accident that killed their friend’s mother, dramatize it, and eat. This is about human beings, their lives, and a life cut short.
A yellow mustang pulls up and a scraggly Ron Eldard as Louis Dainard gets out and hesitantly approaches then enters the house. There is a bellowing roar from inside, and Dainard is hustled out again by a furious Deputy Lamb.
Death and discord. The scene is set.
This neighborhood, while not cookie-cutter like Steven Spielberg’s California developments in “E.T.” and “Poltergeist,” is an ideal setting, a great place to grow up, disrupted by death. The Lambs’ town has the charming name Lillian and is in the middle of Ohio where nothing out of the ordinary is expected to happen.
Joe Lamb is played with simplicity, grace and truth by Joel Courtney. He’s got lots of hair and soulful eyes, and a straightforward, shy manner. He is likeable even without the sympathy due him for his loss. Kyle Chandler is spot on as his widowed father, showing the stoicism fitting his time and character, with pain behind the eyes. And he’s a very good law enforcement officer. The only time Deputy Lamb shows his emotion is when he doesn’t think his son is home. When Joe catches his father in the bathroom crying, Deputy Lamb closes the door on him.
Joe’s buddies are just what you’d expect of junior high school kids. Ryan Lee is Cary, the boy who is overly fond of fires and explosions but can be relied upon to have sparklers, firecrackers, and a Zippo; Zach Mills is Preston, who thinks too much; Gabriel Basso is Martin, the tallest and clumsiest, as well as the male lead in Charles’ zombie movie; and Riley Griffiths is Charles Kaznyk, the budding filmmaker with one big sister and multiple younger siblings. Joe is his make-up man, among other things, and best friend. The group has been working on Charles’ zombie movie for a regional contest. It is being shot on Super 8 film, of course. This is, after all, 1979, a time that might be considered simpler, easier. Of course, every era, decade, before the present felt simpler and easier.
Not surprisingly, this film makes you think of Steven Spielberg, and he’s one of the producers. He’s also an idol of writer and director J.J. Abrams. Abrams and Spielberg are a match made in Hollywood Heaven. The kids sound and act like kids, just like in a Spielberg movie. This is more than one kid, though. This movie needs that tight knit group of 13 year olds, reminiscent of the boys in “Stand By Me,” “E.T.,” and “The Goonies” — make that "boys and girls" in "The Goonies."
This group of misfits is making a movie because young filmmaker Charles is pretty good at manipulating people to do as he pleases. Charles has written a girl into his movie script, to the seeming dismay of his cohorts. She’s to be a wife for the detective investigating the zombie murders. He’s asked Alice Dainard to do it, and she has agreed. Every boy’s mouth drops open. Alice Dainard! Clearly the stuff of junior high school fantasy, Alice Dainard is even going to drive them to the set. Drive? These kids are all 13. Elle Fanning pulls up in her father’s yellow car, and balks at Joe Lamb, the deputy’s kid. She is blatantly too young to be driving, and even her father doesn’t know she has the car. But earnest young Joe convinces her that neither of their fathers will ever know. The show — that is, Charles’ movie — must go on. Scenes between Joel Courtney and Elle Fanning are utterly charming — these two kids will go far.
Our gaggle of adventurers now complete, they drive to a derelict train station outside of town to shoot, and Charles is thrilled when a huge freight train comes their way to create a realistic backdrop for his scene. The freight train, however, runs into a pick-up truck on the tracks and there’s a massive accident, with strange little white “rubik cubes” flying about. What are they, what’s in the train, and what has it to do with the junior high school science teacher driving that pick-up? Dogs run away and disperse from the area of the train crash. Lights flicker, power goes down, and appliances are somehow depleted from store shelves and warehouses en masse, and engine blocks impossibly disappear from under car hoods. Mysteries abound, and then people disappear as well as the dogs and the machines. Deputy Lamb knows something’s not right, but his boss Sheriff Pruitt (Brett Rice) pays no attention. Silly fellow. The kids, of course, tell no one of their misadventure.
Our ingredients, then, are a smallish Ohio town where nothing happens and most everyone knows everyone else; a train crash; the mysterious science teacher the kids all know (Glynn Turman), a nasty Air Force Colonel Nelec whom you just know is less than honorable (nifty Noah Emmerich), his next-in-line guy Overmyer (Richard T. Jones); and a couple of comfortably recognizable faces populating the town (including Dan Castellaneta and Dale Dickey).
“Super 8” moves along well enough through the middle and does not allow for much thinking, as is appropriate. Toward the end, though, the story collapses on itself. Things just got too easy for our young heroes and heroine, and the collection of bricabrac became something very much neater than made sense, considering the speed at which it was constructed. Our adventurers save the day, and that’s swell, but the action — primarily special effects — at the end are a jumble, as visually illogical and unappealing as the fights in “Transformer 2.” This film builds and promises but the end is so cluttered and rushed that finally it just doesn’t deliver. I’m not saying don’t see "Super 8" — I enjoyed myself. But I expected more from Abrams than he gave me.
To those of you born after the time in which the film is set, there are some things you may not understand — like waiting. Cameras held film, which, once exposed (that is, pictures were taken), had to be physically removed from said camera, dropped off at a store to be developed, and finally played back, then edited with scissors and razors and tape. The development alone took days at least. Phone calls went over wires, just like electricity, and might not be possible when those lines went down. A town could be cut off from its neighboring communities quite easily. And yes, some kids did communicate via walkie talkie.
Imperfect as it is, this is a fun monster movie, mostly for kids, telling us that summer is officially here. And do stay for the credits — Charles Kaznyk’s zombie movie deserves an audience!
~ Molly Matera, signing off to watch a 1950s horror flick. Just for fun.