Movies: "Super 8" | Arts & Culture

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Movies: "Super 8"
Movies: "Super 8"

 

It’s the summer of 1979 and strange things are happening in the small town of Lillian, Ohio.   First there’s a terrifying train derailment.  A detachment of secretive soldiers arrives to clear the wreckage.  Then all the dogs in town run away.  People start to disappear.   And who would possibly want to rip out all the engines from the vehicles sitting in the used car lot?

 

Those are the first clues to the cleverly plotted “Super 8,” my pick for the best popcorn movie of the summer.  

 

Written and directed by J.J. Abrams (creator of “Lost” and the latest “Star Trek”movie) and produced by Steven Spielberg, “Super 8” calls to mind many of Spielberg’s early hits, including “Jaws,” in which we rarely catch a glimpse of the scary predator until late in the story, and “The Goonies,” in which a pack of misfit kids uncover a mystery.

 

Here in Lillian, those kids are some movie-obsessed middle schoolers, shooting a zombie chiller on Super 8 film to enter in a statewide competition.  Chief among them is Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney), whose mother has just died in a mill accident and whose father Jackson (Kyle Chandler) is the town’s deputy sheriff.  The kid who’s directing the movie is Charles (Riley Griffiths), talented, overweight and growing up in a boisterous household full of siblings.  Among the rest of the zombie movie cast is Cary (Ryan Lee), a pint-sized pyrotechnician whose love of fireworks will play a key role in the bigger film, and Alice (Elle Fanning), who has been persuaded to play a role in the movie -- and will play an even bigger one in young Joe’s life.

 

“Super 8” was made in great secrecy, and I’m not going to give too much of the plot away -- watching it unfold is so much fun.  But I will note that, as in so many Steven earlier Spielberg movies, the human side of the story balances deftly against the scary surprises.  In this case, we are dealing with two young people (Joel and Alice), their friendship and their relationships with single parents who dislike each other to the point of forbidding their kids from even seeing each other.  

 

And there’s another authority figure on the scene as well:  Air Force Colonel Nelec (Noah Emmerich), who tries to impose his rules over the parents as well.  In all of these instances, someone must ultimately defy authority -- parental or official -- to make things right.  The kids are particularly good, especially the 13-year old Fanning (Dakota's younger sister) in her movie-within-a-movie performance.

 

Abrams, ably assisted by cinematographer Larry Fong and production designer Martin Whist, wonderfully recreates the spirit of the early 1980’s, from the broad-beamed cars to the smallest gadgets -- we see one player grappling with a brand-new Walkman.  The soundtrack, including music by the Cars and the Knack (remember “My Sharona?”) also helps set the stage.  And the movie itself evokes earlier, cheaper horror films, set in isolated towns where who knows what evil may lie?

 

“Super 8” is rated PG-13 for some sci-fi violence and an amusing bit of drug use.  (“Drugs are bad,” says one of the characters in reaction to it.)  

 

I give this one an A for super summer fun.  Oh, and one more thing: stay seated during the closing credits to see the kids' actual zombie movie.

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