Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) and his friends are spending the summer of 1979 making a monster movie. His friend Charles (Riley Griffiths) is the show-runner, but Joe’s the makeup guy. When Alice (Elle Fanning) joins the cast, the boys are flummoxed at what to make of such a beautiful girl hanging around with a bunch of movie-geeks. The kids live in a pretty quiet town, and they ride around on their bikes. Joe’s mother was recently killed in a factory accident, and his deputy father (Kyle Chandler) is emotionally distant. When they accidentally film a terrible train accident, the kids have to deal with the sudden and inexplicable presence of the military in their quiet hamlet.
Written and directed by J.J. Abrams, who grew up making movies with his friends (the movie feels a little autobiographical, if you take out the monster elements), the film is, in many ways, a testament of nostalgia for 1979. Abrams’s rendering of the time period is so pitch-perfect that it almost feels too real. Of course, creating a movie set in a time when technology wasn’t so rampant is intentional and provides a lot of the humor in the story.
In all honesty, the first half of the film is much stronger than the second half. Like other monster movies in recent years (Cloverfield comes to mind), the story is at its best when the monster element is still largely unknown and unseen. Once the monster becomes the focus, the film loses its footing somewhat. From then on out, the movie is uneven, still containing moments of genuine suspense and humor but losing much of its emotional impact.
The (human) cast is pretty strong overall, and the moments where the boys hang out and tease one another are not only the funniest but also the most poignant. Chandler is, as always, really good, but he isn’t given much to do except be emotionally unavailable and look confused. The standouts here are Courtney and Fanning, two young actors (15 and 13, respectively) who do much of the film’s heavy lifting. Fanning is already gorgeous, and her face is both expressive and heartbreaking. Courtney’s portrayal of a young teen who has just lost his mother is pitch-perfect.
Super 8 isn’t a great movie. It is, however, pretty good. It’s definitely worth seeing, and I think there’s something to be said for seeing it in the theater (you can skip the IMAX, though). It’s perfect for the summer, when you’re looking to escape the heat and don’t want to sit through Thor.
Super 8 is playing in wide release in theaters now.