Starting with an advertising campaign that assumed a thriller centred around the presence of a mysterious alien creature, the resulting film may set the viewer up for either disappointment or relief. Super 8, written and directed by J.J Abrams, as well as produced by Abrams with Steven Spielberg and Bryan Burke, has a foundation in science fiction but overhead is a partial coming-of-age story for 13-year-old Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney). The story begins with the accidental death of his mother in a factory and her funeral which lays out his home life of only himself and his father, deputy Jackson Lamb (Kyle Chandler). Joe spends most of his time with his friends filming a zombie movie that his friend Charles (Riley Griffiths) wrote in which they all help out with.
On the first night of shooting a particular scene in which Charles invites a slightly older Alice (Elle Fanning) to play a role, a train passing through their Ohio town is derailed by a truck driving on the tracks resulting in a massive overflow of cars off the tracks. This particular scene stands apart from the rest of the film as it focuses on the train’s derailment and resulting explosions. If you were expecting action, this is where you’ll get it. It’s after this point that the movie sets itself up.
Mysterious things start to happen around town from the disappearance of appliances and citizens to dogs running away. Town meetings help to date the film’s setting of 1979, with references to local attitudes at the time toward Soviets as far as the blame goes, which is a nice touch that otherwise doesn’t have a lot to rely on to date it other than clothing and furniture. The beauty of such a minuscule detail can be put into perspective if one tries to imagine the exact same story taking place in the present day. It doesn’t feel as dire. Here you have a town that is suddenly put under duress of the Air Force for no explainable reason following the rail incident whose only source of information is the 6 o’clock news and information gathered during town meetings.
Super 8 is a beautifully filmed movie with gentle visual movements, despite the growing apprehension of the events building up around them. There’s a very subtle sense of peace throughout the movie in the way of a constant blue streak of light that may not be realized until much later. Obviously on purpose but part of me wonders if it’s meant to indicate the true colour of the film’s intentions. Much of the focus on the movie was placed on Joe’s growing relationship with Alice, despite opposition from both of their fathers due to their own troubled connections in the past, Joe’s father being a deputy and Alice’s being an oft-arrested drunk. Joe’s sensitivity and calming nature is a perfect addition to his group of friends which consist of classic middle-school outcast personas such as the nerd, the fat kid and the pyromaniac. Not a whole lot is developed with the other characters other than learning of Charles’ true intentions with inviting Alice into his movie script and the bond of his friendship with Joe.
By the end of the film, enough evidence is presented to satisfy questions that lingered. However, these questions didn’t seem important as the focus of the film wasn’t on the mysterious activities of the Air Force and the oddities occurring around town. These things felt secondary to the main story which essentially was on Joe’s state-of-mind, saving Alice, his relationship with his father, losing his mother and having a good group of friends and finishing their movie. Part of this may be a weakness of the film itself but it may also strengthen that aspect of the storyline itself. Otherwise, Super 8 would run the risk of becoming just another alien flick.