I've been holding off on writing this review just because of the emotional impact that this film, written and directed by J.J. Abrams (Mission Impossible III, Star Trek) has had on me. Let me give it a try.
As of a year ago, Super 8 was a very secretive production. It had only been announced that Steven Spielberg would produce a 1970s monster movie directed by Abrams. I'm happy that aside from those well-edited trailers, I didn't dig much deeper into all of the rumored subtext this film would have.
The story follows middle-schooler Joe Lamb (newcomer Joel Courtney) who just lost his mother in an industrial plant accident during the winter. Come summer, he is helping his childhood friend, Charles (newcomer Riley Griffiths), make a zombie movie with a super 8 camera. Joe develops a crush on Alice (Elle Fanning from The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Somewhere), yet it turns out that there is a connection between their two families that isn't readily apparent (and credit to Abrams for holding off on that reveal until the right moment). All of the kids go to film a scene by the train station where they witness a train derail and a monster escape from the cargo. When the army comes into town, it's up to Joe's father Jackson (Kyle Chandler from Friday Night Lights) who after the disappearance of the town's sheriff becomes the chief lawman (and has to deal with everything from weird power outages to dogs running away).
This has everything I want in a film. It's just as entertaining as it is thought-provoking in terms of the character arcs that the boys and girls go through during the course of the story. The movie even functions as a homage to Spielberg's masterful Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). Abrams had actually been connected to Spielberg's work before back when he won a super 8 film festival as a kid and along with Matt Reeves (future-director of Cloverfield and Let Me In) was given the job of repairing Spielberg's films that he made as a youngster.
Abrams manages to use a more 21st-Century style of filmmaking to re-capture the types of themes and stories that Spielberg excelled at- loss of innocence, coming-of-age, parent-child relationships, wonder and awe at the unknown (which was the genius of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and Close Encounters of the Third Kind... the aliens were the good guys), and most importantly of all- the will to let go of the past. Abrams, being a genius both in storytelling and visualizing such beautifully composed shots, takes everything a step further and adds in the element of storytelling being an important part of these kids' lives.
The cast, both young and old, are a superb ensemble (including Ron Eldard, Noah Emmerich, Ryan Lee, Gabriel Basso, and Zach Mills). Courtney, Chandler, and Fanning all deserve at the very least an Oscar nomination as far as this year's race goes at the moment. They all showcase so very well the different aspects of their characters thanks to the script and direction of Abrams. Like the storyline itself, these characters are just so multi-faceted. Perhaps the only minor flaw is that the film doesn't equally balance all of these elements, but I was so lost in my emotional reaction to it all that I didn't even notice any such problem (but that seems to be a common criticism I've read and it isn't one I'd jump to defend until I view the film a second time).
I'm stuck with trying to end this review on an all-encompassing note. I guess I can say that in a medium where the director is one of the main forces in the role of being the storyteller, Abrams (who also deserves some Oscar love in the form of nominations for Best Picture, Director, and Original Screenplay) has come very far in his career and I can only imagine how much further he will go. After all, this is Abram's third film and Spielberg's third film was Close Encounters. Yet, Abrams, like many modern directors that get compared to their idols, is quickly showing everyone that he belongs in a category all of his own.
Oh, and a quick movie nerd moment- I think it's intentional that Charles plays the doctor in his zombie film as Spielberg cast a favorite director of his named Francois Truffaut (The 400 Blows) in the role of the scientist in Close Encounters. Sorry, couldn't resist sharing that.