It’s 1979. A shady government organization conducts experiments outside of a small midwestern town. These experiments go too far, and something escapes. Soon after, strange things begin to happen in this tiny town in the middle of nowhere. Things go missing, scary men in official uniforms begin to ask questions and a small group of nerdy kids sees something it shouldn’t, setting off an enthralling series of events.
Based on this description, the layman would probably say that I’m describing “Stranger Things,” the hit Netflix show released in 2016. However, I’m actually describing “Super 8,” the 2011 sci-fi thriller that kicked off our culture’s decade-long obsession with the late 1970s and early 1980s in pop-culture.
This fun and moving blockbuster is nearly 10 years old and, in part, I am reviewing this movie because I want others to see it and have a fun time with their family and friends in the process.
However, I am primarily reviewing this film because this is my last movie review for The University News, and it was this very movie that I watched all those years ago that first sparked my love for film.
“Super 8” begins with the wake for the mother of Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney), a young boy living in rural Ohio. His mother, who was killed in an accident at the local steel mill, was the only person who really ever knew Joe. Joe’s father (Kyle Chandler), a police deputy, never understood how to connect with Joe and doesn’t quite know how to become an active father.
A few sad and lonely months pass. With school out for the summer, Joe and his friends can now devote all of their time to making a cheesy amateur zombie film on his friend Charles’ (Riley Griffiths) Super 8 camera. Desperate for a distraction, Joe becomes absorbed in the project.
One night, they all sneak out of their houses and get one of their new friends, Alice Dainard (Elle Fanning), to “borrow” her father’s car so they can go shoot a scene at an empty train station. The group gets there, haphazardly sets up the scene, and prepares to shoot. However, as they set everything up, Charles notices that a train is coming down the track.
The friends all scramble to begin shooting the scene early as the train passes by to add to the “production value” of their small film. The noise of the train is deafening. As his friends shout their lines, Joe looks into the distance and is shocked to see a truck barreling down the tracks. The vehicles collide in a fantastic fireball that derails the train.
Chaos ensues. Joe, Alice, Charles and the rest run for cover, screaming bloody murder and cussing up storms while train cars rain down all around them, explosions abound and buildings collapse.
After the dust begins to settle, Joe hears something powerful slam against the door of a train car, busting its steel door off its hinges. The air is full of smoke and ash, and Joe can’t get a good look, but something massive with multiple arms emerges from the train car and runs away.
The friends rush back to their own homes and beds, determined to tell no one about what they saw. Yet, after mysterious government authorities move into town and strange things start happening, this friend group takes it upon itself to learn what’s going on and get to the bottom of this mystery.
“Super 8” is a film that, quite simply, has it all. Earnest performances, a simple and solid script, exciting and suspenseful sequences, extremely tight direction with an artistic flare (literally, for those familiar with Abrams’ style), a simple and moving score by Michael Giacchino, and characters with powerful and absorbing emotional cores all come together to make this film into a quintessential summer blockbuster.
This is the type of film that demands a nostalgic rewatch; you long to watch it again at a drive-in movie theater on a cool summer’s evening with your friends.
This film understands that most human stories aren’t actually all that complicated, but they simply seem that way to the characters immersed in the narrative. We all need to occasionally experience something challenging, something awe-inspiring, and something fantastical to be reminded of the simplicity and beauty of our own stories, as well as of our proper place within them.
J.J. Abrams, Steven Spielberg’s protégé, wrote and directed “Super 8” with his mentor as the producer; Spielberg’s presence is certainly evident throughout this film.
Just as in “E.T.” or “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” the focus of the film is not its sci-fi elements or its magnificent special effects, though “Super 8” certainly has those in abundance. It is rather about how those moments when we experience the incredible end up changing our lives for the better.
“Super 8” made me realize the power and beauty of a simple story told well, and it might do the same for you too.