|I didn't want to slap any of these kids.|
That's how Super 8 made me feel all over again. It took every exuberant, thrilling, dangerous, and sometimes scary and sad moment from my childhood, and injected it into a film that is every one of those things and more.
The year is 1979. Young Joe Lamb (newcomer Joel Courtney, who I predict has a long career ahead of him) lives in a small Ohio steel town. He just lost his mom in an industrial work accident, and his dad (Kyle Chandler of NBC's Friday Night Lights), becomes even more detached in his grief and immerses himself in his duties as the local Sheriff Deputy. Meanwhile, Joe occupies himself with a group of friends who are busy making a zombie movie to submit to the Cleveland Film Festival. This introduces us to a colorful cast of kids. Riley, driven director. Cary, the burgeoning pyrotechnician. Martin, the soft and sensitive type. Of course, their film needed a feminine touch, so they brought Alice (the extremely talented Elle Fanning) on board. Joe has a thing for her, but because his dad hates her dad, their association with one another causes some understandable friction.
As they're filming a pivotal scene for their flick on the Super 8 camera, they witness (and are nearly killed by) a huge and explosive train derailment that makes the one in Harrison Ford's The Fugitive feel positively anemic. With massive train cars flying several feet into the air, or through it like missiles, a wreck of this scale would be impossible in the physical world, but that's not the point. From the kids' point of view, they're practically in World War III and we the audience feel their abject terror.
Sinister things spawn from the wreckage, and over the course of several days, it turns their small town into a military zone. I won't reveal the details and spoil the fun of discovering them, but I will say that the execution of the plot from this point was highly evocative of E.T. and Jaws. Writer and director J.J. Abrams studied intently in the School of Spielberg (who happens to be the film's producer), and he wisely doesn't show too much too soon. Instead, we see people disappearing from the town, along with all their electronics, car engines, and dogs. And these kids, of course, feel driven to investigate.
Any other writer and director would have made all these characters and their conflicts feel both overwrought and flat, but J.J. Abrams is smarter than that. The grieving deputy is handled with just enough subtlety to keep him from becoming a cliche, and the kids--products of an era where manners and respect for one's elders were both still in wide practice--never fall into that tired and overused trope of "we're smarter than all the adults around us." In contrast to what you might see from any other film featuring a young cast, the kids aren't made into heroes by comparing them to stupid grown-ups. They're shaped by their circumstances. They're also scared as hell, and because they're good kids and we believe them as actual human beings, we care for them and are afraid for them.
It's difficult to classify this as a family film, because the offerings of that genre today range from cringe inducing to cheap and hollow. Your kids will not be coddled or asked to swallow an easy pill. Super 8 will scare them a little, but rest assured that the film is also smart enough to know when to pull its punches and let the heart and humor shine through.
I personally can't wait to show this film to my 8 and soon-to-be 10-year-old, because it features the kinds of kids I know or have known. Or once was, myself. This is the best movie of the year so far.