3.5 out of 4 stars
Starring: Joel Courtney, Elle Fanning, Riley Griffiths and Kyle Chandler.
With iPhones and flashy video recorders on hand today, it’s easy to forget that once upon a time there were pieces of equipment much like this that actually needed a thing called film to run properly.
“Super 8” takes us back to these glory days and may just bring a tear to your eyes as surely as whipping out the old home movies.
Summer 1979 is a crucial time in the life of 13-year-old Joe Lamb (Joe Courtney). Still reeling from the loss of his mother only months before, he struggles to bond with his distant father (Kyle Chandler), who likewise doesn’t really understand his sensitive, slightly introverted son or his latest project, working as the makeup artist for his best friend Charles’ (Riley Griffiths) zombie flick.
When Joe and his friends sneak out to a train depot after midnight to film a scene for the movie, a locomotive passing by is nothing unusual for them other than some great background noise. But, when the train is derailed by a pickup truck on the tracks, the ensuing crash almost kills them and even worse, almost gets them in trouble with the military, with Air Force officers at the accident in minutes.
Though Joe is just happy to be alive, he can’t get his mind off what he saw of the train’s contents, such as an enormous, demolished cargo car from which something equally big seems to have escaped. And, as a dictatorial colonel (Noah Emmerich) starts to take over their small Ohio town, Joe, Charles and company find that they may have more answers than they wanted when they discover the Super 8 camera they were using captured the entire incident.
Bearing more than a passing resemblance to a young Henry Thomas, debuting actor Courtney is the ideal fresh face to play Joe, a normal kid who’s experiencing a not-so-normal hitch in the last days of childhood, as he has to contend with a depressed widower father, puppy love and a homicidal creature lurking in the night, all at once.
Catching up to older sister Dakota, Elle Fanning is great as Alice, the girl with whom Joe bonds and quickly falls in love with despite a feud between their fathers, with “Friday Night Lights” star Chandler fine as sheriff’s deputy Jackson and Ron Eldard eliciting empathy as Alice’s dad, Louis, a boozehound plagued by guilt.
Griffiths also makes a promising entry into the film world as Charles, a teenage Orson Welles demanding perfection in his short film, “The Case,” doing everything he can to capture production values like genuine soldiers or huge amounts wreckage in the background.
The rest of the gang is just as good, reminding you of all the neighborhood kids you used to run around with, such as easily nauseated Martin (Gabriel Basso), smart mouth Preston (Zach Mills) and fledgling pyromaniac Carey (Ryan Lee).
The encapsulation of the sensation of having childhood friends who will stick their neck out for you when it counts makes you think back to movies like “The Goonies” and “E.T.” No surprise there, considering Steven Spielberg’s involvement as a producer, but as apparent as his influence is, there’s a feeling of his passing the torch to writer/director J.J. Abrams.
The creator of “Alias” and “Lost” comes off his “Star Trek” high only to vault himself even further up the echelons of his generation of filmmakers. Besides being massively entertaining and well-made — with a slow, steady reveal of the monster that would do Spielberg proud — this is clearly a very personal, semi-autobiographical account of not only his life, but every kid who grew up with a camera in hand, wanting to make it to Tinseltown.
The one regret is an ending that’s slightly anti-climactic, but with all that precedes it, it’s pointless to nitpick.
The beauty of “Super 8” is that it goes back both in time and in mood to a period when Hollywood could still create huge, thrilling moments that worked for everyone, even those who have given up on the mainstream.
But, cynics can rest easy watching the entirety, including the final cut of “The Case,” which plays over the credits.
Be sure to save a few Milk Duds for these no-budget final moments.
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