The big set piece of J.J. Abrams’ Super 8 is a spectacular train wreck. It happens in the dead of night: A pickup truck stalls on the tracks, and the train’s locomotive explodes. Boxcars fly in every direction; a quaint old station is violently annihilated; metal shards rain down on everything and everyone; and each chunk of twisted debris makes an ear-splitting crunch when it hits another chunks of debris, or the cold, hard ground. It’s awesomely impressive. Abrams somehow outdoes his inspiration, the famous train wreck in Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth.
The movie’s heart, however—and Super 8, surprisingly for a big summer movie, does have a heart—is full of romance.
The train wreck happens in the middle of a movie shoot. The filmmakers are a gang of almost teenagers: the bossy, chubby, savvy director Charles (Riley Griffiths), makeup and effects specialist Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney, right), firebug Cary (Ryan Lee) and actors Martin (Gabriel Basso) and Alice (Elle Fanning, left). They’re making a zombie movie to enter a teen film festival, and they’re all mad—movie mad. (The title refers to the Super 8 film format, which was popular in the olden days before flip cameras, the wheel and such.) When Charles sees the train coming, he screams “production value!” and corrals his team into immediate action. They only flee when the world blows up around them.
The film, which is set in the late 1970s, is designed as an homage to the popular kidcentric flicks of the 1980s that were directed or produced by Steven Spielberg (The Goonies, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, Indiana Jones and the Annoying Kid Sidekick etc.). It’s an improvement on them. Maybe it’s because Spielberg’s films were kidcentric to the point of excluding adults from the films’ points of view; maybe it’s because the characters were so underwritten. No matter. Abrams, who also wrote the screenplay for Super 8, makes his young ones’ interactions compelling, and their immaturity appealing: The film opens with the funeral of Joe’s mom, who died in a gruesome workplace accident; the kids can’t help but wonder, out loud, what was left of her to put in the coffin.
The train wreck isn’t the climax of the film, but rather sets the plot in motion. It turns out that it was a special Air Force train, and the Air Force was transporting something nasty and very much alive in one of the boxcars. It also turns out that the wreck wasn’t an accident. Soon enough, people are disappearing, power outages are widespread, and, ominously, every dog in this small Ohio town runs far, far away.
Much has been made about the secrecy surrounding the film’s “monster.” It’s a con. The monster is scary enough, but, really, whatever: The real story is how the kids keep making their movie and, finally, manage to survive while the world turns to shit around them. That’s what makes Super 8 so watchable.
Both Courtney and Griffiths are newcomers, and they’re terrific; among the adults, Kyle Chandler and Ron Eldard bluster and muck about convincingly as out-of-it but genuinely concerned fathers. The scene-stealer, though, is Elle Fanning; she does an acting-while-acting bit, for example, that’s priceless.
If you want a rollercoaster-popcorn-blah-blah-blah summer actioner, then Super 8 fits the bill and you won’t be disappointed. It’s better than that, too.