While I can only remember spending my school summer holidays watching Spaceballs on repeat and eating peanut butter out of the jar, in Super 8 a bunch of clearly more motivated kids decide to spend their summer holidays shooting a zombie movie. Among them is Joe Lamb (an excellent Joel Courtney), in charge of makeup effects, who lost his mother in an industrial accident four months earlier. He and his father’s relationship has suffered heavily, most heartbreakingly displayed in a moment when dad Jackson (Kyle Chandler) sells him on the idea of spending summer at a baseball camp by saying “it’s best for both of us”. Before the idea takes hold, the group of friends sneak out late one night to film a midnight scene by a train line. Accompanying them is the only person with access to a car—Alice Dainard (Elle Fanning), whose first scene is amazingly snippy but who Joe is besotted with regardless. As they start filming, a train comes along in the background, and all hell breaks loose.
The train crash scene was incredible. I love a good smashy disaster spectacle on film—only pretend ones, though—and this blows most other such scenes out of the water. Carriages go flying, debris everywhere, fireballs—you name it, it happens. And it keeps happening. It takes your ability to believe in the physics of a crash and stretches it as thin as possible. It is one of the most entertaining ten minutes I’ve ever had in cinema, and though the movie had been fine up until that point, that was when the audience gasped at each other in shock and I blustered about it happily in my seat. In the aftermath of the crash, the story proper is set up: something mysterious and alive was in one of those carriages, and the Spielberg/Abrams camp is happy to scare the pants off you from here on in.
As the town deals with the crash and the subsequent drama of both the army’s arrival and the fallout from the accident, Joe and his friends have their own problems—jealousy, grief, blossoming friendship and the need of movie director Charles (Riley Griffiths, shouty and excellent) to finish the film. Shit gets real pretty quickly, and our characters are in actual danger, making it a tense and gripping film that has typical Spielberg humour to lighten the mood. And I don’t begrudge him that for a second; it’s bloodier and the kids swear like troopers, but otherwise, it’s got a real Goonies feel to it; fun, scary, everything a kid could want—though I’d be hesitant recommending it to anyone under the age of twelve or so.
The acting is perfect, and the kids—some of who have never acted in film before—will make you weep for them and laugh with them. The film-within-a-film’s lead actor Martin (Gabriel Basso) barfs at any level of distress; explosion effects master Carey (Ryan Lee) is a slightly alarming little pyromaniac; Preston (Zach Mills) designs sets and is a terrible extra. You’ll love them all—apart from Alice’s guilt-ridden father Louis (Ron Eldard), none of the humans are really a grey area as far as how you want them to see out the movie. The army is made up of jerks. The townspeople are good. And with a mysterious creature on the loose, someone’s going to get attacked.
The scares were so neatly placed that I never expected them; one particular bus scene had me so surprised that I knocked Chris’s Pepsi over in my terrified flail. One guy behind me screamed in an earlier moment of shock. With these moments of alarm coupled with jokey characters and a pace that never stops being affecting in some way, Super 8 is almost a perfect movie.
It isn’t, though: the creature itself is a grey area emotionally and has a frustrating ending; Alice’s dad Louis seems to have more backstory with Joe’s family than is properly exposed; a particularly magnetic (this is a terrible pun) scene at the end is laboured and pointless; a joke about a kid listening to this new thing called a “Walkman” is forced and elicited nothing but groans from the audience. But no movie is flawless, and it was such a fantastic movie overall that a few people even applauded as the credits rolled. And you should, of course, stay for the credits.
Super 8 is a wonderful, instant-classic type movie; it gives me hope for J J Abrams (because let’s face it, Cloverfield was pretty average) and reminded me why Steven Spielberg is the kind of guy who you want to hug and thank for making childhood seem much more fun than it actually is. For the first time in a long time, I am contemplating seeing a movie at the cinema twice. This time I’ll make sure we take drinks that have screw-top lids so no one needs to find themselves covered in ice just because I can’t control my arms.