Now THIS is a monster movie. Wait, let me re-phrase that. Now THIS is a coming-of-age movie. No, now THIS is a summer movie. Still not right. Now, THIS is a...oh forget it. Like all great movies, Super 8 transcends genre and blends together elements from different film types to form something not just entertaining and fun, but genuinely magical. This is not a science-fiction movie, although it has sci-fi elements. This is not just a monster, although the monster is a doozy and we are not cheated on our views of it. Super 8 is a movie about growing up, letting go, and nostalgia. It's also about dealing with pesky military conspiracies.
The best way for me to write a review of Super 8 is to break it into the different ways it worked.
BEING A KID: Very few movies have authentically captured what it is like to be a kid. Like Stand By Me (to which this movie has already been compared) and The Sandlot, Super 8 understands what it is like to be the age of the characters it presents. Not all teenagers are ultra-hip, snarky, and obsessed with getting laid. Many of them are awkward, scared, and want nothing more than to just be accepted for who they are by their friends, and, of course, their parents. Kids are much more perceptive than we ever give them credit for. Spielberg knows this and it anchored his E.T. 30 years ago. Super 8, executive produced by Speilberg, who was a major influence on J.J. Abrams, taps into that source, and the power of the movie is in the fact that we experience the whole thing with the kids. We knew these kids growing up, or, most likely, we were one of these kids growing up. I know if I had had a Super 8 film camera or something like it, I would've been making movies, too.
COOL MONSTER: At first, I was convinced we were getting a more in-depth look at the monster from Cloverfield (produced by Abrams) but that turned out to be a false assumption. For anyone looking to make a monster movie, please study this film. There is so much for you to learn in how to handle your monster. Super 8 drops little hints along the way about the size and scope of what the citizens of Lillian are up against, including a brilliant shot of the monster's reflection in a puddle outside a convenience store. Then, we are treated to a scene on a bus that, at first, seems a nod to the Explorer vs. T-Rex scene in Jurassic Park, and then gives us a great money shot of the monster. Of course, the monster is just an alien that crash-landed on Earth years ago and is trying to get back home. Kept under wraps by the military, it escapes after a train wreck sequence that dwarfs the one in The Fugitive. By the end, we follow the kids into the lair of the beast where it is trying to repair his ship and get back home. Whether or not you are happy with the creature's design I will leave for you to decide (I loved it), but there is no denying that we get our money's worth.
LOVE LETTER TO MOVIES: In writing a review of Super 8, it is important to mention there is something Meta going on throughout the film. I became aware that I was watching a movie for movie geeks made by movie geeks about movie geeks. The kids in this film are trying to make a zombie film to enter into the Cleveland Film Festival. This is J.J. Abrams paying homage to his childhood, his love of movies, and Steven Spielberg. It evokes a time when movies seemed so much more magical than they do now. Don't get me wrong. There are some phenomenal movies produced these days, but many times, I feel like they are lacking in joy and exuberance. They're no fun. Even in the midst of great peril for our young heroes, Super 8 never waivers in its fun. In addition, movies are used in two critical sequences. First, the boys are reviewing footage developed after the night of the train accident and they get a real good look at the monster. Second, after breaking into the school to retrieve what they think will be good information; they stumble upon old films made of experiments on the monster. Film footage is used a means of bringing this movie toward its climax. Nice touch, I thought.
I'm probably gushing but I don't really care. I've learned to respond to whatever a movie touches within me. This one had me right away because of my abiding affection for monster movies. Then, it grabbed something deeper. My childhood was one spent dreaming of stories and wishing I could go on some grand adventure like the one these kids did. I wanted to search out the clues, solve the mystery, rescue the girl I was crushing on, and tell the world that the monster was really just misunderstood. This is the movie I wanted to be in as a kid.
Now, I'm inspired to gather up my digital video cameras and go make a cheap zombie movie. Who's with me?