Super 8 is an homage to 80s movies. I am starting with this not as an opinion, but as a solid fact. It’s hard to get through it without realizing that its very structure, characters, and plot are all nods to movies like ET, The Lost Boys, The Goonies, Monster Squad. There’s a dash of column A and a dash of column B in here. What is an opinion is that Super 8 is also every bit as fun and thrilling as those movies are to watch.
The movie takes place in 1979, focusing on a group of a middle-school friends filming their own zombie movie over the summer. One bad location choice has them in the middle of a train crash that also releases a mysterious monster. Shortly afterwards, the small town they live in starts losing citizens, experiencing blackouts, and gets invaded by the army. Joe Lamb and his friends have to figure out what’s going on and how to stop it.
In many ways, it’s really an unassuming movie, and part of this is thanks to the cast. Many of the kids have this as their first movie, including Joel Courtney, who plays Joe. Just like the movies mentioned above, the kids are the main characters, and don’t act like perfect kids. They curse, they sneak behind their parent’s backs, they fight with each other. It’s hard to say if the kids are really well cast, or if they’re just very well-written kids. They get a lot of fun and humorous lines, along with some very well-defined personalities. They may be bordering on clichés, but they’re the kind of clichés that we know and love, the ones we can nod at but perfectly accept with welcome arms.
And for all of the humor they get, the movie can instantly turn into thrills. Some scenes build up to the monster appearing, with you just knowing that he’s going to show up. Others have him come out of nowhere. It’s a mix of tension and surprise that works well for the movie. And when it explodes into full special effects action, it keeps up the mood. The train wreck near the beginning is just phenomenal, using what appears to be full-on practical effects (and if they’re not, it’s damn good CGI) that has the kids running and a spice of action that gets you hooked. And the monster…I guess I can’t say too much about what he looks like, but while it’s obviously CGI, it works well enough, in part because we can’t see him well most of the time, and his eventual close-up looks pretty good. Speaking of the monster, the whole tactic of not seeing him in the trailers is a marketing ploy. I’m not just saying this, writer/director JJ Abrams outright said that this is his way to compete with the bigger-name boys. And it’s really effective. You simply don’t see the monster for most of the movie, and that means you’re holding on to every glimpse you get of it. You keep your eyes open for every reflection, every minor shot, anything that will show you what it is. It doesn’t matter what it looks like in the end, you just want to see it. It may be a cheap trick, but it works.
As far as full-on throwbacks go, Super 8 stands out. The fun and magic of the movies it’s homaging comes through, while it also makes a name for itself in such a way that it easily stands up next to them. If nothing else, I imagine it’s going to be talked about and referenced for a while, and that in itself makes it worth seeing.