Lowdown: A bunch of kids get deeply involved in a mysterious government conspiracy.
The best way to concisely convey what Super 8 is about is to say it is some sort of an E.T. with balls film, a new version of E.T. made for the same people that film was originally made for – only that now these same people are adults.
Set in the seventies (we hear about the Three Mile Island accident in the news), Super 8 follows a bunch of kids as they shoot an amateur zombie film on Super 8 (ah, those pre digital days!). One night they avoid the authorities (i.e., their parents), bunch up with this girl (Elle Fanning) who drives them without a license to the train station, and start shooting there. When a train passes by, adding production value to their film, the unexpected happens: a car comes rushing by, blocks the train, and causes it to derail. Our kids barely escape the calamity that follows, after which it turns out the train had a secret military nature to it. The army comes in, closes the area, and starts off with all sorts of spooky activities at our kids’ little town. No body knows what is going on, but answers may lie in our kids yet to be developed Super 8 roll.
I found Super 8 quite engaging even though its heroes are mostly kids. With the film starting off by telling us his mother has just died in accident at the town’s main factory, it’s quite easy to relate to the child at the center stage, Joe (Joel Courtney). It becomes even easier when Joe’s attention turns to the moody girl of the group, whose father just happens to have some arguments to resolve with Joe’s father. Yet the main event is Super 8 is the struggle with authorities acting inhumanely, to one extent or another, in defense of some unreasonable cause: Joe is a victim of his father’s issues with the girl’s father; the whole town is a victim of the army’s whims; and the inevitable alien is a victim of humanity’s fear of the strange. Why don't they all open up to one another, asks Super 8, the way our hero kids do?
Altogether this J.J. Abrams film feels too much like a Steven Spielberg movie, which is probably no coincidence given the way ads emphasize the latter producing Super 8. That is the exact problem with Super 8, though: it is not a bad film, but it is also not a film that tells us anything we haven’t seen before. It packages it all up nicely, but the story and the motifs are all too familiar.
Best scene: The new girl on the sound stage (Fanning) is proving to be more than an able actress when the film rolls at the train station. I liked the scene not because it was particularly important to the movie, but rather because it demonstrates how an actress can quickly change to get into her role. It made me ask how often I am fooled by real people in real life pulling an act on me. It also made me ask why that same actress is seen to have produced rather mediocre results when the kids’ final cut is presented to us over Super 8's closing credits…
Overall: A nicely arranged package of films we’ve seen before, with added spices of mild horror to the basic sci-fi / teen drama formula. 3 out of 5 stars.