To any child of the 80s, the name Amblin brings back fond memories of watching our VHS copies of The Goonies or E.T. until the tapes were as worn out as our Gremlins or Back to the Future lunchboxes. But it seems that as we grew older, the good wholesome adventure story went the way of the Trapper Keeper.
The promise of a return to the Amblin adventures of our childhood has had just about everyone excited since the Super 8 teasers rolled out earlier this year. I couldn't be happier to report that the finished product completely delivers on this promise.
Set in 1979, Super 8 tells the story of young Joe Lamb (newcomer Joel Courtney) and his rag tag band of amateur movie geeks. Things have been tough for Joe but everything changes one summer when Joe's best buddy Charles (Riley Griffiths), the big boned leader/director decides it's time to cast a girl in their film. Joe is instantly smitten by Alice (a role crushed by Elle Fanning) - and all the boys are impressed by her acting chops.
The gang sneaks out to film their first scene with Alice and get all set up just in time to witness one of the most fantastically impressive train crash sequences in the history of cinema. If almost dying, a broken camera and a whole night of shooting down the tubes wasn't bad enough, it also turns out the crash unleashes a mysterious danger on the kids' small town. Urged on by childish naivety and a desire to impress Alice, Joe ignores Charles pleadings to leave it alone and tries to figure out what the hell is going on.
Not only is J.J. Abrams a master of exciting filmmaking, but he fully understands what made those 80s films so great: heart. His first focus is always on telling a good story. We empathize with Joe - feeling the same eagerness to impress Alice while rooting for him as he strives to do the right thing. Because of this, the payoffs feel so much more satisfying - leaving us smiling and giving us the elusive authentic quality of heart.
But this movie isn't mired in the conventions of 80s filmmaking either. J.J. spends plenty of time winking at the adults in the audience and many of the more mature jokes are pretty damned funny. While it probably goes without saying that the visual effects in the film are top notch, they are also never oppressive - only used to enhance the story instead of the opposite tactic too often employed. And if we needed any more proof, this movie further demonstrates J.J. is the master of how to reveal a good monster.
The film's only downside is the one note performance by Kyle Chandler as Joe's dad Jackson. This is Chandler playing Coach Eric Taylor if his wife had just been killed. It seems that the key to Jackson's character was supposed to come in his relationship with Alice's dad Louis (played by Ron Eldard). However, that plot line feels underdeveloped and was most likely (wisely) trimmed way back to try to shave minutes from the just shy of 2 hour running time.
If someone was going to buck the trend of mediocre all ages adventure blockbusters, it wouldn't have been a bad idea to bet on J.J. Abrams. And with the support of up-and-commer producer Steven Spielberg behind him, summer hasn't been this fun since childhood. Just make sure you also get a digital copy of this one when it comes out for home viewing this Christmas. You're gonna want to watch it over and over again - enough to wear your VHS copy out.