The summer movie season is in full swing, and so far it has been a cut below mediocre. But with the release of “Super 8” last week, moviegoers finally got a film that represents the epitome of what a summer movie should be in that it offers viewers a combination of adventure, fun, suspense, mystery, science fiction, and brilliant performances by some incredibly talented young actors. Of course, would you expect anything else from a film written and directed by Emmy winner J.J. Abrams (“Lost”) and produced by Academy Award winner Steven Spielberg (“Raiders of the Lost Ark”)?
“Super 8” is set in a small Ohio town (Actually it’s Weirton, W. Va.) during the summer of 1979, when some ambitious and imaginative teen-agers decide to make an 8mm zombie movie to enter in a film festival. The self-appointed director of the movie is Charles (Riley Griffiths), recruits some of his friends to help him in the endeavor. Martin (Gabriel Basso) is the main character and leading man, and his co-star is Alice Dainard (Elle Fanning), a girl on whom Charles has a huge crush. The head zombie is Cary, who also serves as the cameraman, and the remainder of the crew comprises Preston, an actor and lighting supervisor, and Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney), who’s in charge of makeup, sound, and special effects.
Because one of the scenes requires the presence of a passing train, Charles and his crew set up their equipment at the local railroad station, where they await the arrival of a train. The train comes in on schedule, and Charles gets the footage he needs, but the crew notices a pickup truck stopped on the tracks on down the line, and the ensuing crash and derailment is one of the most spectacular scenes in the film that’s filled with stunning special effects. But again, what else would you expect?
The story really gets rolling when the military is sent in to clean up the wreckage, and Joel’s dad, Jack (Kyle Chandler), the town deputy who still is grieving over the recent loss of his wife in an accident, begins to suspect that the military is covering up some kind of secret about the train’s cargo, and the youngsters become involved in the investigation when they discover who was driving the mysterious truck that caused the accident.
“Super 8” is an outstanding film on several levels. In addition to being an effective science fiction thriller, it also is a wonderful coming-of-age story, and an interesting character study of the relationships between teens and their parents. Both Spielberg and Abrams made 8 mm films when they were young, and in the production notes, Spielberg explained the genesis of this movie.
“We started talking about the kinds of films we love to see and also about the kinds of film we’d love to make together someday. We landed immediately on our mutual history of making 8mm films. We both thought it would be cool to make a movie about young people having an adventure making movies.”
Also in the production notes, Abrams explained what he was striving for in making “Super 8.”
“I wanted audiences to get all the action, humor, suspense and pyrotechnics of a summer popcorn movie, but there is also a real heart to ‘Super 8’ and, for me, that is really the most important part. Despite all the wild stuff that happens in the story, this is the first movie I’ve made that has felt so much a part of my life.”
Abrams did a terrific job of casting this picture because every one of the young actors who virtually carry the film are superb in their respective parts and bring a distinct individuality to each of their characters. It’s also remarkable how good both Griffith and Courtney are because neither of them had acted in a film before this one.
Although Charles is the director of the movie in the film, Joe is the main character, and this was by design as Abrams explained in the production notes.
“I didn’t want the main character in ‘Super 8’ to be the director of the movie. I wanted him to be the kid who follows the director, who’s there because he’s lost his mother and is having a tough time with his father and is looking for his way.”
As the film opens, Joe has just lost his mother in a freak accident, and as the movie progresses, we see the interaction between Joe and his father, who is trying to cope with the untimely death of his wife, oversee the investigating into the train wreck, and deal with his son’s feelings. Chandler, who was so superb as Coach Eric Taylor in the critically acclaimed television series “Friday Night Lights,” turns in a wonderful performance as the conflicted deputy.
And then there’s Fanning. There must be something in the Fanning family genes because Elle shows the same poise and maturity in front of the camera as does her older sister, Dakota. She is excellent as Alice, whose father has a lot of baggage, and she offered some insight into her character in the production notes.
“She’s kind of a tough girl, a tomboy, and she’s had a hard life. Her mother is gone, and her father is always drinking, so when the boys ask her to be part of their movie, she’s like ‘What the heck? I’ll do it.’ Then it turns into this whole incredible event for all of them.”
In addition to the outstanding acting, “Super 8” boasts plenty of action, suspense, and mystery as well as stellar special effects. My only problem with the film is that I was a bit disappointed by the appearance of the mysterious source of all the chaos later in the movie. Perhaps it would have been better never to actually see the being responsible for the havoc in the wake of the train crash because I didn’t find its physical appearance the least bit frightening. But then again we are dealing with science fiction, and the creature in the “Alien” saga did nothing for me either.
Of course, making the film of particular interest to residents of the Ohio Valley is the fact the movie was shot in Weirton. The following excerpt from the production notes explains why the filmmakers chose the nearby town as the location for the picture
“To create the 1970s steel town for ‘Super 8,’ the production journeyed to Weirton, West Virginia, which lies on a narrow strip of land smack between Eastern Ohio and Pennsylvania, on the Ohio River. The town’s striking skyline, dominated by its sprawling, central steel mill, made it a perfect visual match for the quietly rugged, hard-working American town J.J. Abrams envisioned as the backdrop for his story.
Over all “Super 8” (Give it a solid nine.) is everything a summer movie should be because it’s exciting, suspenseful, engaging, and just plain fun. In a word, the entertainment value offered by this film is simply super.