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The Independent Critic

Elle Fanning, Ron Eldard, Kyle Chandler, Amanda Michalka, Joel Courtney, Zach Mills, Riley Griffiths
J.J. Abrams
Rated PG-13
112 Mins.
Paramount Pictures
Includes over two hours of behind-the-scenes special features:
- Deconstructing the Train Crash: Uncover the secrets behind filming the astonishing scene
- 8 Exclusive Featurettes: Explore the origins of the story, casting, creating the alien and more!
- 14 Deleted Scenes
- Director JJ Abrams & Filmmakers’ Commentary
- And MUCH more!

 "Super 8" Review 
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Seldom has past and present seemed as intertwined as it does in Super 8, a sci-fi film written and directed by J.J. Abrams (Star Trek), who so lovingly fashions the film after early Spielberg that at times the similarities are as distracting as they are entertaining.

For those who have been living under a rock, Super 8 has glimpses of such early Spielberg fare as E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind along with flicks such as Spielberg's War of the Worlds remake, The Goonies and even glimpses of Stand By Me.

Please note that, with the possible exception of War of the Worlds, all of these films are considered at least minor classics and enduring treasures. So, there are certainly worse films upon which you could base your own film.

For the most part, Super 8 feels like an updated and technologically advanced E.T., a film that centers around vulnerable youth, misunderstood aliens and the worlds in which they both live. In this updated version, Joe Lamb (newcomer Joel Courtney) is an adolescent boy whom we first meet shortly after the death of his mother. All those who surround him wonder aloud how Joe will survive the loss of his mother, especially given the relatively primitive parenting skills of his father, Jack (Kyle Chandler), a deputy sheriff in the small town. Joe distracts himself by working with his buddy Charles (Riley Griffiths) on a zombie flick along with a rather explosive buddy (Ryan Lee) and the unexpected involvement of Alice (Elle Fanning), a slightly older younger classmate who has been recruited for a key role in the film and who happens to be the daughter of a the town troublemaker (Ron Eldard).

The boys, and girl, are out filming one night at an isolated train station when they witness a horrific train crash followed by, well, unusual behavior that quickly results in the appearance of none other than the U.S. Air Force led by a goonish, quietly nightmarish figure brought creepily to life by Noah Emmerich. How this all unfolds and what happens is a secret that will remain in place here, but suffice it to say that Abrams has so successfully created a Spielberg film, with the obviously blessing of co-producer Steven Spielberg, that one can't help but wonder how much of this is actually an Abrams creation and how much actually was influenced by Spielberg.

Or, does it really matter?

As is nearly always true for these ensemble kid flicks, the success of the film almost always rests on the shoulders of the kids themselves. Can they actually sell the film and make both action and sentiment convincing? In the case of Super 8, the answer is a resounding "Yes!" While the adult roles border on paper thin, not since The Goonies and Stand By Me has Hollywood managed to assemble such an appealing and resonant cast of youngsters.

Newcomer Joel Courtney, easily this generation's Henry Thomas, can project both a youthful bravado and a rather moving vulnerability that fits the role of Joe Lamb perfectly. Courtney's Joe Lamb is a soulful, wounded presence whose strength shines through even when you can practically feel him crawling into the fetal position. He's an extraordinary match for the equally soulful Elle Fanning, who shines brightly and may have finally found the role that will make her as much a household name as her older sister. Fanning is quietly wonderful here, a gentle and sensitive presence whose guardedness masks a fierce loyalty and protectiveness towards those around her. Supporting players Riley Griffiths, in The Goonies he'd have been the fat kid, and Ryan Lee manage to avoid caricature despite being largely strapped with caricaturish characters to work with throughout most of the film. The two fathers in question, portrayed by under-appreciated actors Kyle Chandler and Ron Eldard, aren't given nearly as much to do yet both Eldard and Chandler exude far more than simply one-note performances and layer their performances in such a way that the way the film resolves itself feels both obligatory and yet deeply satisfying.

If there's a major beef with Super 8, it would lie in the relatively unsatisfying portrayal of the film's central threatening force, which is essentially only given one decent scene (admittedly, it's a fabulous scene) before the film's climactic closings. To the credit of Abrams, however, he manages to build into this threat a strong river of personality and depth and substance that is frequently absent from these types of films.

Transformers comes to mind.

Especially in the film's stand-out scene involving our central threat and the vulnerable young people, the emotional depth and extraordinary human drama that's unfolding is palpable and suspenseful. It simply would have been nice had Abrams added this sort of depth a bit earlier, instead of having scenes too often play out like M. Night's nearly awful The Village.

Michael Giacchino's original score is simultaneously sweeping ahd humane (watch for Giacchino's brief appearance in the film), and Larry Fong's camera work manages to perfectly blend the normalcy of childhood with the larger than life technological aspects of the film. Martin Whist's production design is spot on, giving the film's 1979 setting a life all its own.

Super 8 may not be groundbreaking cinema, and it may pick up just a bit more steam than it actually needs to in its final third, but there's virtually no question that Super 8 will please a wide audience with its nicely woven together stories of childhood wonder and monsters both imagined and real. Those who've long embraced Spielberg's earliest films are likely to consider Super 8 a second rate attempt at Spielberg but, let's be honest, a second-rate Spielberg is still better than much of what Hollywood is producing these days.

Oh, and thanks J.J. for not ruining the film with 3-D. Excellent choice.

Behind an appealing ensemble cast, Super 8 is both heartfelt and harrowing, a film that manages to remind us that the scariest monster flicks are those where we actually care about those who are involved. Childhood is filled with monsters, a fact that Spielberg has always beautifully explored, and J.J. Abrams taps into that sentiment in searching for the monsters within, the monsters in our homes and the monsters in galaxies far away.

© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic