People looking. Classic Spielberg.

Theatrical Release Date: 06/10/2011
Director: J.J. Abrams
Cast: Joel Courtney, Elle Fanning, Riley Griffiths, Ryan Lee, Kyle Chandler, Ron Eldard, Noah Emmerich, Gabriel Basso, Zach Mills, Glynn Turman, David Gallagher, Amanda Michalka
Rated: PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi action and violence, language and some drug use.
Runtime: 1 hour, 52 minutes


Us looking at a lens, looking at us. So meta.

There are some minor spoilers in this review. The latest trailers basically give away what I’ve described below but if you want to keep as much as possible shrouded in mystery, click here for the overall rating if that’s all you wanted to know.

“Super 8″ comes from writer/director J.J. Abrams. It features his ridiculous assortment of lens flares (not nearly as prevalent as in “Star Trek” thankfully) but aside from that and a far more agile, violent creature, many would be hard pressed to say that producer Steven Spielberg wasn’t the one calling action behind the camera.

Whether or not that’s a bad thing is up to you, but the small Ohio town the film is set in feels like Amity in “Jaws”. The kids banding together, taking matters into their own hands is right out of “The Goonies” (Spielberg was executive producer). And of course, the contents of the derailed train are not of this world; touching on themes apparently near and dear to Spielberg’s heart, a la “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”, “E.T.”, “A.I”, “War of the Worlds”, and “Indiana Jones 4″ – not to mention a number of projects he produced.

I grew up watching many of those films though and found a great deal of comfort in seeing a movie centered around kids that treated them with respect. Far more often than not, anything with a bunch of 13 year-olds these days is some Nickelodeon/Disney spin-off made of substance so thin you can read through it. Films like “The Goonies”, “Lost Boys”, and “Monster Squad” all feature adolescent protagonists faced with overcoming adult-sized obstacles but they don’t talk down to the kids. Rather than be limited by their age, they use the curiosity, eagerness and sense of adventure so many adults lose as they “grow up” to their advantage.

To that end, what makes the film so entertaining is how well cast all of the kids were. Joel Courtney, in his feature film debut, absolutely nails the part; so much more impressive as he’s the main character and essentially carries the story from beginning to end. If there is such a thing as a co-lynchpin, it’s Elle Fanning, who seems to utilize a far more natural approach than her much more lauded older sibling (while Dakota’s great, sometimes we see her “acting”). Courtney and Fanning share a remarkable chemistry and their scenes together are the best of the film, connecting the audience with the characters beautifully.

It’s also appreciative that their burgeoning attraction isn’t fast forwarded simply because the film is just under two hours. This is the beginning of a relationship, and they’re in middle school; there’s no need to act like these are 24 year-olds playing high school seniors and I’m relieved to see it depicted more appropriately here.

The rest of the kids in the group are also superbly cast. They each have distinctive characteristics and it makes for one of the best adolescent ensembles put on-screen. My only small gripe is that I couldn’t tell you the name of every kid after the credits rolled. There are two who play larger roles, and as such don’t have this problem, but there were a few more who did feel a bit more like background players. While I didn’t need more fully developed scenes with each of them adding to the runtime, it would have been nice for some of their introductions to be done just a bit more clearly and with the focus on them, rather than as ancillary support to the others.

Also helping to make the film something truly worthy of being seen on the big screen are the effects. Some fantastical events occur in this small town and Abrams does a nice job of both satiating modern audiences while also paying homage to the Spielberg films that are responsible for the basic DNA of “Super 8″.

I have a few more minor gripes about the revelation of the creature (like with “Jaws”, it’s nicely held off-screen for a long time but it would have been more fitting that the kids’ film was the first time the audience sees it). Also, there are a few heavy handed moments, as they try to amp up the sentimentality of key scenes. And I think the ending comes about a bit too quickly and conveniently.

But as far as big budget, Hollywood summer tent pole films go, “Super 8″ is the best one to come along in years. Trying to think of a comparable, I end up going back decades, often to some of the films it’s directly drawing from. As such, I’m giving it a 4 out of 5 and highly recommending people go out and see it. (And make sure to stay in your seats once the credits roll, as a very special treat is played over them.)

The only word of caution I would give is that the PG-13 rating is perhaps a little too generous. There are some scenes that I would not feel comfortable bringing someone under 15 or 16 to see … but then again, media desensitization seems to be happening to younger and younger kids so it’s really just something worth considering if you’ve got children in middle school or below. Obviously, every case is different but I was bothered by the very young age (more like 9 or 10) of some of the kids brought to the screening I attended … and more so that they didn’t seem fazed by things that would have scared the crap out of me when I was their age. Growing up is supposed to be a process, not something done early enough to ensure parents don’t need to find babysitters for too many years. (And now to get off my high horse.)

4 out of 5