It’s damn hard to capture the spirit of adolescence on film. An incredibly important time in all of our lives, it’s an easy thing to botch, whether it’s the child actors who stumble over complicated dialogue or a filmmaker who looks back on the past with rose colored glasses. But when a writer and/or director is able to capture the incredible mix of emotions that come with the experience of youth, it can be beautiful. While J.J. Abrams hasn’t created a perfect film in Super 8, he has captured the essence of growing up and blended it with a compelling, action-packed, science-fiction tale that pays homage to genre classics without ever losing its spark of originality.
Set in 1979, the film begins with Joe (Joel Courtney) in mourning-- his mother was killed in an accident at the steel mill, and his relationship with his equally shellshocked father (Kyle Chandler) has only grown more distant and broken in the months since He spends most of his time with his friends (Riley Griffiths, Ryan Lee, Gabriel Basso, Zach Mills, Elle Fanning) as they shoot a low-budget zombie movie to enter in a local festival. After sneaking out at night to shoot a scene at the nearby train station, the kids witness the derailing of an Air Force train carrying precious and mysterious cargo. They are warned by a survivor of the crash to tell no one of what they have seen, only to find their town suddenly plagued by inexplicable occurrences, a heavy military presence and, worst of all, disappearing people.
Conquering the risks that come with a largely teenage cast, Abrams has assembled a group of actors who are nothing short of outstanding. While Courtney is obviously the band leader, and puts on an impressive and mature show for such a young actor, every member of the group is a joy to watch and has their own little quirk that prevents them from simply being part of an amorphous cluster. Lee – who plays an explosion-loving firebug – is a great source of comic relief and delivers some of the film’s best lines, while Griffiths, as the troupe’s director and Joe’s best friend, is charming in his portrayal of the motivated Charles, whose bravado gives way to an affecting vulnerability later on. These personalities all come together brilliantly when grouped together, each one’s best qualities being heightened in interaction with the others. Though the film is purposefully an homage to the early work of Steven Spielberg and films like Stand By Me and The Goonies, the young ensemble cast helps it stand on its own.
The ever-present lens flares threaten to get in the way, but Super 8 sports some truly stunning photography. While action movies in recent years have developed this awful habit of filming everything too closely, letting details and comprehension fall by the wayside, Abrams always has the camera impeccably placed, allowing the audience to fully take in the film’s scope. The train crash alone is a sequence that will keep your mouth agape five minutes after the fall of the last car. The quality extends to the quieter moments as well. In scenes between Joe and his father or with Alice (Fanning), Joe’s crush, Abrams and his camera draw out the tension, awkwardness or distance between the characters so that you understand them before a word is spoken. After tackling two all-out action films as his first two features, Abrams challenges himself with this project and handles the dramatic scenes with just as much skill as those loaded with explosions and crunching metal.
But while the performances and direction are stellar, the film does have some pretty substantial gaps in the storytelling. Super 8 is in every way a tribute to classic Spielberg, but where Abrams digs deep for the same emotional resonance we find in Jaws or E.T., he and the audience discover too late that it doesn't exist here. While we follow the disconnected relationship between Joe and his father from the first scene, the audience is never actually given any closure, the audience left to assume beyond the end of the film that everything has been patched up. The opposite goes for the conflict between Joe and Charles, which creates an interesting arc for their relationship but then solves it too quickly and without enough reason. The movie’s greatest mistake, however, comes during a sentimental moment at the end where Abrams betrays established elements of a central character's personality in an attempt to evoke emotion that instead falls flat. Super 8 is fueled by ambition and for the most part it’s an asset, but Abrams does bite off more than he can chew in some crucial areas.
While the ending is flawed, Super 8 is a chiefly a wonderful cinematic experience that mixes terrific performances, edge-of-your-seat thrills and excellent camerawork. Despite being in his mid-40s, J.J. Abrams has successfully honed in on the universal feelings of youth and captures the spirit of an era in a way that makes the audience feel nostalgic but never emotionally manipulated. For a film that doesn’t live up to its own ridiculously high expectations, it’s still very much a triumph.