Super 8 is a rather delightful film which does a very good job of invoking the mood it wants, but never quite meets its own potential. Super 8 is the story of a small town in 1979 which starts experiencing strange events after a military train derailment. It focuses especially on a group of kids who actually say the derailment themselves and even captured it on video. A very cool premise, though not particularity unique since something along those lines has probably passed through the mind of any kid with a wild imagination; having something extraordinary happen to your ordinary little town.
The problem with Super 8 is that the pay-off turns out to be rather disappointing. The secret being which escapes the train is actually not that interesting and has a feeling of stuff we’ve seen before (most notably in District 9). The mystery build up the movie gives us in the first half is excellent, but the problem with that is that it’s really hard to live up to that build up, and of course Super 8 comes up short.
Okay, so that’s where Super 8 fails. Where does it succeed? Oddly enough, part of its failure is also part of its success, since the mystery build up is really quite good. After the train crash our characters start to experience strange happenings, like dogs running away, motors missing, and so on. It’s all really intriguing and J.J. Abrams does a very good job of setting the mood of extraordinary things happening to ordinary people, drawing upon the childlike imagination within all of us.
Another important aspect of Super 8 which makes this a very enjoyable film are the kids whom we follow. This particular group of kids are aspiring filmmakers (of course) who experience the train crash first hand. (the crash scene is spectacularly filmed, by the way). These kids are surprisingly well drawn, and really feel like your own group of friends when you were that age. I like that they didn’t typecast the chubby kid and the typical bumbling chubby kid, but in fact make him leader of the group. The main character of Joe is a good hero for us to sympathize and connect with.
These kids really ground the film, even when the subplots with two of the characters and their fathers doesn’t quite resolve as effectively as Abrams obviously wants it to. But when Joe, Alice and their group are on-screen, we are interested. This really does give a sense of nostalgia, but it’s not the nostalgia of the Goonies-like movies of the eighties, but instead a fond memorial to life as a kid in a small town (for those of us lucky to have grown up in one).