THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
When I was a kid growing up in the 1980s, I used to make movies using my dad's super-8 millimeter camera. It was an arduous process. After I did my shooting, I took the film to K-Mart, where they'd send it out for processing. One long week later, the film would come back. I'd go home, thread it up in the projector and, for the first time, see if what I shot was any good or not. That could be nerve-wracking. I also used to have a subscription to Super 8 Filmmaker magazine, which offered useful tips, such as using an Exacto knife to lightly scratch the film frame by frame if you wanted to make laser weapons like in Star Wars. In today's age of handheld digital video cameras, computer editing software, and YouTube, the old way of making home movies must seem unfathomable to modern adolescents. But while difficult, the old way evokes nostalgia in me; it was a blast. J.J. Abrams' Super 8 understands that nostalgia. It also understands the youthful fantasy of having the most amazing adventure ever.
Set in 1979, this is the story of a bunch of Ohio middle boys who are making their very own zombie movie. They've even convinced class beauty Alice (Elle Fanning) to play a key role. Joe (Joel Courtney), the son of the town's police deputy (Kyle Chandler), is particularly smitten with her. One night, they all sneak out of their houses to film a scene at a train station. As they shoot, a passing locomotive violently derails right in front of them. I had the pleasure of seeing Super 8 without any spoilers, so I don't want to drop any here. All you need to know is that there's something mysterious on that train, it gets out, and havoc is wreaked upon the kids' hometown. Since they were there when the sequence of events started, they're also in a position to stop it. That means foiling a military officer (Noah Emmerich) who's spearheading a covert operation aimed at containing the situation.
Much as been made of the way Super 8 proudly flaunts its influences. The look and visual style have been designed to replicate an old 80s Amblin Entertainment movie, the kind that would have been directed and/or produced by Steven Spielberg (who, in fact, serves as a producer here). Even at a deeper level, it resembles those pictures; the sense of wonder that marked them has also been faithfully recaptured. If you can imagine The Goonies crossed with the non-Spielberg Stand By Me, with a pinch of E.T. thrown in, that's what Super 8 is like.
While the retro vibe is undoubtedly a lot of fun, it's important to note that the picture works on its own level. The story completely sucks you in, whether you ever made a super-8 millimeter movie or not. Joe, Alice, and the others find themselves in the middle of a fantastical situation, and it's enormous fun watching them put together the pieces of the puzzle. Perhaps not surprisingly, the mystery of the train involves film stock. It also involves them going through one exciting ordeal after another. Writer/director J.J. Abrams expertly builds suspense as the characters get closer to answers. They must put the same youthful creativity they used in the creation of their zombie movie to work in order to navigate each new challenge in the train wreck aftermath.
While the young cast is comprised mostly of unknowns - with Elle Fanning being the most recognizable - they create an authentic group; these feel like real friends hanging out together, knowing each other's strengths and weaknesses, occasionally cracking jokes at one another's expense. I also love the specificity of the characters. There's a bossy one (he's the director, naturally), and one who loves to blow things up with firecrackers (he's the effects guy). Joe is trying to deal with the unexpected death of his mother and a father who hasn't come to terms with his own feelings, while Alice seeks to rebel against her alcoholic dad (Ron Eldard). You could say that Super 8 is a science-fiction movie, but it's one that ultimately ties its sci-fi elements to some recognizable human emotions.
I'm not entirely sure the very end makes sense. Maybe I missed something that would have explained it, or maybe I'm just expecting too much exposition from a movie that's simply trying to provide a cathartic payoff. When you're having as much fun as I was, though, it doesn't really matter if a few loose ends straggle. Experientially, Super 8 is enormously satisfying, crafted with skill and a passion for the wonder of youth. It is a film about 8mm that deserves to be seen on the big screen, in glorious 35mm.
( 1/2 out of four)
Super 8 is rated PG-13 for for intense sequences of sci-fi action and violence, language and some drug use. The running time is 1 hour and 52 minutes.