Super 8 was not on The List of movies I planned to watch this much. I'm not a big fan of horror movies, and even less of a fan of the school of "hint, not show" film-making. So, I'd originally planned to give it a miss.
This was a mistake.
Super 8 is a love letter to a certain kind of adventure movie, movies like Stand By Me & The Goonies. It's a movie about friendship and growing up, and is worth a watch.
The film set in 1979, and (with only a few anachronistic moments) embraces the realities of that era while neatly sidestepping some of the more outre elements. It starts out in a surprisingly Hitchcockian manner, taking it's time to introduce us to our juvenile leads… well, half of them, anyway. The other three are given only minimal characterization.
However, soon enough, the train wreck of the trailers (a loud, pyrotechnic affair with Abrams' patented lens flares) introduces the central mystery of the piece, and the plot goes from Hitchcock to Stephen King, as the plucky kids investigate the mystery of the crash. Naturally, complications arise, Joe's dad "takes a level in badass", and it all gets wrapped up in a Spielberg ending (which fits, as he was the producer).
But Abrams never forgets the heart of the film, which is young Joe Lamb's relationships with his father, his friends, and, just perhaps, his first love. It's that heart that lifts the film above the cliches. You never really care what the McGuffin is, or even what it looks like (we never get a really good look). But you do care about Joe, and you want him to do well.
The acting is believable (well, except when it's supposed to be purposefully bad), although, as I mentioned above, only three are given much characterization, the others being "kid who likes to blow things up", "kid who occasionally throws up", and "the other one".
Joe Lamb, played by newcomer Joel Courtney, carries the heaviest burden of the film, as it's really his story. His character is realistic, well-rounded, and believably geeky (I'm a child of that era... I knew kids like him).
Elle Fanning (sister of Dakota) plays Alice, who goes from being standoffish, to intrigued, to empathic, showing the most growth over the film. That being said, one scene with a video projector goes a bit heavy on the schmaltz.
The third "lead" (really, more of a major supporting role) is Charles, Joe's best friend, played by Riley Griffiths, another newcomer. He's given the voice of reason role and drives most of the plot. He does well, although one scene which is meant to add tension comes out of nowhere and vanishes almost as quickly.
The other kids... are there. None really serve a major role in the plot. Indeed, when one was left behind at one point, I didn't even notice he was missing. The adults (in particular Joe & Alice's fathers) have their spotlight scenes and arcs to complete, but they are at best secondary.
I have to give credit to an unrecognizable David Gallagher (who some may remember from 7th Heaven) for a bravura performance as a stoner who runs the local film store, and comes dangerously close to stealing the film in his scenes (including one where he's unconscious). He also inspires one of the most quotable lines in the film:
"Oh, drugs are so bad"
(It's worth hearing it in context. Trust me).
Is Super 8 destined to become a classic? No, probably not, as it does meander quite a bit, and could probably use some trimming. But it is a good film, and worth catching.
BTW: Stick through the credits to see Charles' cinematic zombie masterpiece, The Case. It's fun.