Super 8

Posted on June 9, 2011 at 6:09 pm

A couple of kids who are deeply in love with making movies have made a movie about kids deeply in love with making movies, and it is one of the most joyously thrilling treats of the summer, a love letter to childhood pleasures that last a lifetime.

Producer Steven Spielberg and writer-director J.J. Abrams may be chronological grown-up, but as this movie makes clear, they could have just as much fun with a super-8 camera and a box of M-80’s.  Representing them in the film are Charles (Riley Griffiths) and Joe (Joel Courtney), middle schoolers in 1979 Lillian, Ohio, who are working on a movie to enter into a competition.  In that pre-digital time, they are making it with a Super-8 camera, on film that is bought and developed at the camera store.  Charles is the writer and director.  Joe is in charge of make-up and special effects.  Cary (Ryan Lee) in charge of explosions and Martin (Gabriel Basso) is their star.  It is a zombie movie.  But Charles has been reading about film-making and realizes that he has focused too much on scares and special effects.  An article explains that the movie works better if there is a reason to feel something for the characters, so he decides that Martin’s detective character will have a wife.  And that is how Alice (the luminous Elle Fanning) joins the group.

They sneak out one night to film a scene at the train station.  When a truck drives onto the tracks as the train approaches, there is a spectacular crash.  The kids run, but the camera keeps filming.  What it shows will be the key to solving the real-life mystery about what was on the train.

As they wait for it to be developed, increasingly disturbing developments occupy Joe’s father, Lillian’s deputy sheriff.  All the town’s dogs disappear.  Engines are ripped out of cars.  The sheriff and a gas station attendant are missing.  The army has taken control of the crash site and will not tell anyone what is going on. The adults are so distracted that the kids are able to pursue their investigation — and their film-making — almost without supervision.

It feels in the best possible sense like a newly discovered Spielberg film from the “Goonies”/”E.T”/”Close Encounters of the Third Kind” era, with its suburban setting and kids’-eye sense of wonder and adventure.  The meta-humor about the film within a film (stay through the credits to see what the final version looks like) is witty and heart-warming.  “Production values!” says Charles as though it is a magical incantation.  Which, in a way, it is.  No one understands the language of film better than these guys and their evident pleasure in the economical story-telling through visuals adds to the dazzle.  A worker silently removes the “784” from the sign that says “safety is our most important goal” and replaces it with a 1.  When we then see Joe sitting by himself outside, we know what happened and feel his loss.  Later, he pins a lost dog notice to a bulletin board and the camera pulls back to show us the entire board is covered with notes about lost dogs.  The camera is in every way a part of the masterful storytelling here.

Like Charles, Abrams and Spielberg know that all the special effects and jump-out-at-you thrills in the world won’t resonate unless we care about the people in the story.  This is definitely a movie about characters.  The themes of parental estrangement are not always gracefully handled, but Abrams’ ability to put us inside the children’s world is breathtaking.  All of the kids are great but Courtney and Fanning are marvels.  A scene where he applies zombie make-up to her face is filled at the same time with longing, amazement, and unspoken understandings and is almost unbearably tender.  Best of all is the way Abrams shows us that it is not just the happenstance of the movie footage that gives the kids the unique ability to solve the mystery and get everyone home safely; it is the way that particular moment poised between childhood and growing up gives them for a brief moment the unfiltered sense of wonder that makes everything in the world a discovery of equal magnitude and a universe of endless possibilities.  It is a privileged moment that he lets us share, and a rare film that makes use of genre without getting overwhelmed by it.  We get all of the popcorn pleasures of the stunts and special effects but we get the deeper pleasures of a great story, masterfully told.

Parents should know that this film includes scary and graphic scenes with jump-out-at-you surprises, adults and children in peril, some graphic and disturbing images of injuries, devastating destruction, and a monster, characters injured and killed, strong language (dozens of s-words, one f-word), guns, crashes, explosions, fires, character abuses alcohol and another smokes marijuana and offers to sell some to a child

Family discussion:  How does the making of Charles’s movie help tell the story?  Why was it hard for Joe and his father to understand each other?  What movie would you like to make?

If you like this, try: “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “E.T.,” “The Goonies,” “Son of Rambow,” about two boys who make a movie, and the affectionate parodies of 1950’s alien invasion movies, “Alien Trespass” and “The Lost Skeleton of Cadavera.”

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Action/Adventure Drama Fantasy Stories About Kids

24 Replies to “Super 8”

  1. If this movie is even half as good as you make it seem, it will be a sure classic. I was sort of dreading it as a supernova of talent that is more likely to implode than explode. But this preview certainly makes me think again – I may even pay to see it on a Big Screen!

  2. Hi Nell,

    I always rely on your reviews on which movies to watch with my daughter. She just finished the 8th grade, would this movie be appropriate? I am lucky enough to be able to screen this movie before I will watch it with her, but since I’m a dad and have a certain affinity for the movies, I may not be the best judge on what’s appropriate for a budding teenager (especially a girl).


    1. I think it’s fine for a rising 9th grader, as long as she is okay with some scary stuff and you are okay with some bad language and pot smoking. Let me know what she thinks!

  3. Gosh, this is intriguing–and I especially appreciate the references to other films that would interest those who like this one!

  4. LOVED IT! We went with a big group family/friends – we laughed, screamed, and sniffled! Finally a movie that we felt invested in the characters! The youngest kids we had with us were 12 yrs of age (2 girls), we are all pretty picky with what our kids see, so we prepared them. They thought other movies (like the Pirate movies) were scarier. When we left we were all talking to our kids about what it was like during that time and how we remembered this and that.

  5. Just got back from the movie. I enjoyed the action and the suspense. But the only problem I had was the language. I found the F-word, s-words, a-word and the (2) p-words, was not needed for it.

    My eleven yr old wanted to see it but we saw it first. We were considering taking her, if appropiate, on optimum free movie night. But due to the language, we won’t take her.

    1. Thanks, Letin1. That’s exactly why I provide the information here, so parents can make a decision about what is right for their families. As you can see, I noted the s-words and f-word and recommended this film for high school and up.

  6. Saw this movie tonight with my husband and college age son & REALLY loved it. I’d add “Stand By Me” to the list of “if you liked this, try” movies — for older fans, anyway. Wonderful performances by the young actors!

  7. Took my 14, 16 and 17 year olds, they loved it! I loved the 70’s decor and jokes. Calling your friend “a turkey”. The only thing that didn’t ring true for me is when the pothead guy told Charles that his sister was “hot”. In those daze, his sister would have been called “a fox”. I loved the laughs and thought it was a good story, although I never like our military to appear to be the bad guys. Oh well. And while I have problems with language used for the sake of swearing, I know that we talked like that back then as middle schoolers. I had 4 brothers, good lord! But still, it wasn’t necessary to the storyline.

    Nell, not to go off track, but looks like the reviews for Transformers 3 so far are really good (the one or two out there). WHEW! We can’t wait! The first one is my fav movie ever, but 2 sucked.

    1. Great comment, Joanie! Absolutely right about “fox.” And I’m hoping Transformers 3 will make up for the awfulness of the second one, too!

  8. Hi Nell; thanks for the review. we are still trying to decide whether to take our 3 15-year olds to see this. although they are certainly within the recommended age-range, 2 of them tend to become quite disturbed by some types of graphic violence. i’m curious how the violence in this compares to that in Knowing. we made the mistake of taking them to see that one before reading your review and had to walk out right after the fiery airplane crash scene — just too intense. granted, they were a little younger then, but they are still sensitive to that type of violence. (yet the pirates series has been just fine for them…)any advice you can give would be appreciated…. thanks!

    1. Tough call, Liz — the violence is not very graphic here (except for some explicitly “fake” violence in the movie-within-a-movie). For me, the “Knowing” violence was worth because it involved so many innocent deaths. In this movie (spoiler alert), other than the off-screen death of the mother in the first minute of the film, the characters we care about all come out fine. I think this one should be all right, and I hope it will inspire them to make their own movies!

  9. Neil

    I have to say that I’m glad I finally found your blog.
    As someone said I always read your reviews. Not only due tips for parents but because your comments are great and very relevant.
    You are my favorite movie critic.

    1. Mauro, I shared your wonderful comment with my family. Many thanks — I do this as a labor of love and feedback like yours makes it all worthwhile.

  10. Nell,

    I love your reviews so much that it is a running joke in my family about how I always always check with the moviemom before I decide if my kids can see a movie, as typically, you are right on the money. However, after seeing this movie with my kids, I was a bit disappointed that we were not warned about the amount of profanity in this movie. My kids and my nieces and nephews were bombarded with so many words, it was incredible. When I read the line in your review “several s-words” I thought of 3, maybe 4, and we had a discussion about there being some language including one f-bomb. However, in just one 30 second scene in the car, I lost count of the number of s-words used (20 maybe?) and the variety of language used introduced my kids to new words they had never heard before. I felt the language was gratuitous and unbelievably pervasive throughout the whole movie (was there any scene that did not include 2 or 3 offensive words?), and detracted from the movie as a whole. It also has caused some family strife, as I had assured my sister-in-law that there were only a “few s-words and one f-bomb”. Needless to say, she was very inhappy with me as we walked out of the theater.

    The movie itself was, on the whole, fun, exciting and nostalgic at the same time and I would agree with the rest of your review whole-heartedly. However, the language was close to R-rated and very disappointing in a movie that has been so heavily advertised to kids. Parents be warned!

    1. Thank you, Andrew, good point and I will strengthen my caution on the language. Unfortunately, this is what passes for “some” bad language even in a PG-13 these days and it has begun to pervade PGs as well. But you are right and I will revise the warning.

  11. I saw the movie, but I am not sure if I will take my daughter to see it. I think it had great potential but was trying to be two movies and ended up totally disappointing (me). I think my daughter may enjoy it, but I think transformers and Harry Potter may be more enjoyable and have some consistency. I still have a bad taste in my mouth from Transformers 2 though, I am ashamed to say I did not read your review before I took my daughter to see it and was totally mortified. I think the foul language in PG-13 movies is really not adding any value to the story, but that’s a seperate discussion.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Miguel. I agree with you about the language in PG-13 movies, which gets worse all the time. Sadly, it is a reflection of the language used in our culture. Television is almost as bad.

      I liked the way the two stories in this film were woven together. And I’m hoping “Transformers 3” will be more like the first than the second.

  12. I saw the film and enjoyed it. I particularly liked the “jump-out-at-you thrills.” Like others have stated, I thought the use of such “strong language” in a PG-13 film more than necessary. I also liked the inclusion of the film that the kids made during the credits. With all the action and suspense, it kept my interest throughout.

  13. My husband, 13 year old son, and I went to see this movie tonight. So much fun! We had talked on the way there about the language and what is acceptable at home. My son knows exactly where the boundaries are. In fact, when one of the characters yells at his mom while looking for something, my son leaned over and whispered, “I’d be dead meat if I yelled at you that way!”

    With that said, this movie was a fun glimpse into kids/culture back then, and the timeless themes of love, relationships, and loss.

    My son can be pretty sensitive to both alien movies and movies dealing with a parent in peril (think War of the Worlds with Tom Cruise, etc.) but weathered this film just fine. I think he was waiting to see how Joe’s character would handle everything.

    Thanks again for a spot on review and I’m with Andrew above. My guys always ask what you said about a movie before we go. Thanks for doing what you do. 🙂

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