‘Super 8′ movie review: The Goonies meets E.T. in J.J. Abrams’ 80s nostalgia

Produced by Steven Spielberg and written & directed by J.J. Abrams, Super 8 is set in 1979 and captures the spirit of the coming era’s Amblin Entertainment – E.T., Gremlins, *batteries not included, and (especially) The Goonies, among other films – better than anything Spielberg himself has directed in the past two decades.

Super 8 wears late-70s/early-80s nostalgia on its sleeve: posters for Halloween and Dawn of the Dead adorn walls, walkie-talkies and model trains are employed, Electric Light Orchestra and Blondie feature on the soundtrack, and a group of young teens is shooting a zombie movie for a local film festival on super 8mm. 

Most important is the sense of innocence and wonder, which may not have existed in the same sense in the real world of the time, but certainly did in Spielberg’s films of the era.

The friends shooting the zombie movie are Joe (Joel Courtney), the special effects and makeup expert, who has recently lost his mother to a factory accident; Charles (Riley Griffiths), the eager director; Cary (Ryan Lee), the fireworks-obsessed cameraman; Martin (Gabriel Basso), the gangly lead actor; and Preston (Zach Mills), the stagehand.

They’ve just managed to cast Alice (Elle Fanning), who Joe has a crush on, as the female lead. Bonus: she has access to a car, which the group uses to covertly transport their equipment to the desired location – a deserted train depot – in the middle of the night. 

“Production values!” Charles shouts, saliva spewing from his mouth, as a train approaches; but he gets more than he bargained for as the train derails in spectacular fashion, sending the young filmmakers scrambling in different directions to avoid the carnage.

But this was no accident. And more importantly…something has escaped.

That something was only vaguely hinted at in promotional materials for the film, and a good portion of the running time is spent obscuring just what it is, too. A wise decision: the ultimate revelation is mostly underwhelming, featuring a familiar-looking CGI creation that would have only detracted from the film had it been given more screen time.

Super 8 also features a number of adult roles, including Kyle Chandler as Joe’s grieving father (and one of the small Ohio town’s police officers), Ron Eldard as Alice’s father, and Noah Emmerich as the leader of a military team that moves into town to clean up the train wreck.

 But the kids are front-and-center here, and the way in which they’re used is the best thing about the film. Movies featuring this age group (think The Goonies, Monster Squad) are rare in today’s mainstream cinema (similar films seem to skew slightly younger or older), and those that do tend to pander to their audience. But not this film, which presents the ambitions of these kids in an honest and heartfelt manner and speaks to a generation of moviegoers.

Abrams brings some of the same slick techniques he used in Star Trek to Super 8, including the ever-present and dreaded (for many) lens flares. But growing up during the era depicted in the film, this one is coming from the director’s heart; I can’t speak for the current generation, but those of us that grew up Star Wars and Indiana Jones will find a lot to like here.

Be sure to stick around for the end credits, which feature one of the best credit-sequence bonuses I can recall: “The Case”, the completed short zombie film made by the main characters. Earnest and goofy, appealing to the amateur filmmaker in all of us, it’s one of the best things Super 8 has to offer and a note-perfect send-off.


Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky has been writing about the Prague film scene and reviewing films in print and online media since 2005. A member of the Online Film Critics Society, you can also catch his musings on life in Prague at expats.cz and tips on mindfulness sourced from ancient principles at MaArtial.com.

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