Before the world was introduced to Stranger Things to bring back to a time where it centered on a story revolving around the mystery of a town in the past, writer-director J.J. Abrams and co-producer Steven Spielberg was here first to bring us Super 8. This 2011 film isn’t talked about now when it comes to the more familiar films he’s been doing recently, but how could you not embrace the fun of it all in this? This is what summer movies should be all about.
What’s the Story: In the small town of Lillian, Ohio in 1979, a group of teenagers- Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney), Charles (Riley Griffiths), Cary (Ryan Lee), Martin (Gabriel Basso), Preston (Zach Mills), and Alice Dainard (Elle Fanning) are just about to begin their summer vacation. They are just about to help Charles finish his low-budget zombie flick to submit to a local film festival, but everything changes after a massive train crash where they were shooting at a nearby train station, capturing everything with their Super 8 camera, and something from the cargo has escaped. With unusual disappearance taken place in the town and the military arriving in cleanup what occurred, something mysterious is going down.
Like the Abrams-produced Cloverfield a few years prior, this was another project from Paramount Pictures and Bad Robot kept in secret with little details about it. When we got the very first trailer shown in front of Iron Man 2, we had no idea what this was all about. And then the Super Bowl ad air, it hooked me pretty quickly. The thought going around my mind was wondering if this was this going to be a sequel to the Matt Reeves film or another original sci-fi blockbuster on our hands? It’s the latter. But this was one of my most anticipated movies of 2011 not only because of the intriguing marketing behind it, but this was going to be the film following Star Trek, and it looked to be another memorable hit to remember. What more could you ask for? At that point, Super 8 was the first movie of that summer movie reason I truly loved from start to finish where the sense of wonder was found for two hours.
This will make everyone feel like a little kid again watching this because anyone who grew up hanging out with their friends during the summer can feel this sense of joy and restlessness all from the movie. Abrams did a fantastic job directing this. He brought such a nostalgic feel throughout, like I was watching a high-budget home movie, and that’s a positive. Because of watching his films then and now with this, you can tell he used to make all kinds of movies with a Super 8 camera when he wanted to be a filmmaker while growing up and was getting all kinds of different ideas to make every scene better. It’s also clear he was inspired by Spielberg to make this, which makes sense when he also made these movies when it was starting, and it comes through with his storytelling and getting us to care about these characters when moving everything along in a fast-pace. By the way, the lens flares are there as expected. This was his way of dedicating himself to helm a coming-of-age sci-fi that came off as a homage of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Stand By Me, and The Goonies into one thrilling piece of work. Since those are films I love, it would make sense to love it, even if it doesn’t have anything new to say.
This also has a good job at having several funny moments that were placed just right without feeling unnecessary. Trust me, it’s quite funny. Most of the laughs came from Riley Griffiths’ Charles. And the action was exciting to watch, and seeing them again without the big screen still made it tense. The entire train sequence was excellent when I saw it for the first time. The greatest train wreck in movie history? It has to be since there aren’t any others that come to mind. That scene alone should’ve gotten the movie a nomination for Visual Effects from the Oscars. Did it have to be over-the-top? Yes, and you’re crazy if you think it shouldn’t be.
I’ve always seen this as the perfect film to come out in the summer where everyone is out of school and just wanting to feel free from all the stress that comes with being a kid. None of this was relatable to me since I never made movies with a camera of my own, but those who’ve always wanted to make them and expand their minds to do what they love in different genres, it would be like a blast from the past in the most extraordinary way. Since I was a teenager at the time of its release and an adult now, this made me miss being a kid, without having many responsibilities life gives me. As you’re watching, you feel as if you’re a part of this gang and you have to wonder if you’ll react the same way as everyone else: being scared or plain curious about what’s going on. Seeing a movie like this where kids’ go on an adventure unlike any other is exciting, especially when it’s original. Plus, I’ve always liked how it was a mix of two films: a coming-of-age tale in the beginning and a monster movie in the second half. Something like that might make it a problem for some, but not this guy.
And surprisingly enough, the acting wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. That needs to be said because the performances by the kids are some of the most realistic teen acting I’ve seen in years. Normally, kid actors would annoy me to the point of dragging the film down, but what I come to love about these characters is how they have unique personalities and how they would act around middle school age, even much so they felt real. Some of them haven’t even been in a movie before. My favorite out of everybody and the one who was the true breakout star was Joel Courtney as Joe Lamb. I loved his performance because I couldn’t stop thinking about it for the rest of the year. His character is the one we have a focus on the most because this takes place months after his mother died in a tragic steel mill accident and he and his dad Deputy Jackson Lamb (Kyle Chandler) have become distant after her death. The then-newcomer reminded me so much like Henry Thomas in E.T. or Sean Astin in The Goonies just from his eyes.
But besides Courtney, Ms. Elle Fanning’s performance as Alice very impressed me. I was familiar with her because she’s the younger sister of Dakota, yet I didn’t know what to expect when I found out she was going to be in this. But it wasn’t until here where she became on my radar and became a crush of mine years later. The two of them, Courtney and Fanning, were brilliant in every scene they were in together, and the dynamic she carried with the rest of the gang wasn’t troubling at all. Just the scene where her character talks to Joe about her dad in his bedroom at night was so beautiful, showcase the emotional moments needed to provide something profound when it’s over. As for the adults, the one who’s recognizable the most is Kyle Chandler (Friday Night Lights), who was great as the town’s deputy and Joe’s widowed father.
Some of the other elements that made this a non-disaster are how well its tension was used. Thanks to Abrams, he knows how to make anything unpredictable when it comes to his stories since he doesn’t show everything right away, and that’s what made some scarier moments earned with its suspense and jump scares, particularly during the gas station sequence. The decision to not show the monster right away and still keep it a mystery until the end was a smart move. But the thing I loved the most is Michael Giacchino’s score, which is magnificent. No other score from that year was more important than this, and this was when I became a fan of Giacchino’s score from now on. His piece “Letting Go” used during the finale is one of my all-time favorite film themes that’s moving from every minute and it’s his best work by far.
With the problems this carries, there aren’t many to nitpick about, honestly. I will agree with the fact the design of the creature, later on, looks a bit similar to the one in Cloverfield. And though some might’ve complained about the ending, saying it was cheesy and forced, I didn’t think it ruined the movie for me. That’s mainly because many didn’t understand it. Sure, it was similar to the ending in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but it was a touching and tearful ending in a way I didn’t expect to come through. It’s one of those endings I haven’t forgotten about ever since. It’s supposed to make you feel.
Super 8 is a bright and imaginative summer movie that’s very entertaining, and it’s such a very underrated film from J.J. Abrams. For me, I can’t comprehend how the general audience doesn’t at least like this when it shouldn’t be forgotten. When it’s able to bring engaging storytelling, outstanding performances, visuals, and able to harken back to the nostalgia feel of classics from the late ’70s and early ’80s, that’s a major win. This was my second favorite movie of 2011 and the summer too, and I’m still keeping it that way. Honestly, seek this out ASAP if you don’t want to be disappointed.