Many years ago, an exasperated student asked me “What is Pulp Fiction about?” After thinking for a few moments, I finally conceded, “It’s about how much Quentin Tarantino likes making movies.” I thought briefly after the screening of Super 8 how I would answer the same question. That one is a little easier: “It’s about how J.J. Abrams likes him some Steven Spielberg.”
I like me some Steven Spielberg, too. Like Abrams, most of my adolescence and teen years were accompanied by a Spielberg montage, so a hybrid of The Goonies (yeah, I know, Richard Donner directed, but Spielberg got a writing credit), E.T., Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Jurassic Park pushes all my nostalgia buttons.
That it only ever really pushes the nostalgia buttons, that (like most animated films these days) it spends more time and energy referencing other movies than it does being its own thing, might keep Super 8 from being a masterpiece, but it doesn’t keep it from being a very pleasing summer movie experience. Even further than that, the fact that it has an original story in a summer full of comic book movies and sequels is enough to shoot it straight to the front of the summer movie queue. It may be derivative, you may know all the notes, but you haven’t heard the song before, so (unlike the sea of tentpole films and participants) you don’t know everything that will happen at every moment in the film.
The plot deals with Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) dealing with the death of his mother, an event that is nicely understated in the film’s first image, and the growing distance between himself and his sheriff father (the seriously underrated Kyle Chandler). Dad wants Joe to go to baseball camp (“we both need this,” he says, and Joe and we know he means “I need this”) but Joe wants to help his best friend, Charles, finish making a zombie movie.
They sneak out of the house to film a scene, are in the wrong place at the right time, see things they aren’t meant to see, and away we go. (To be more specific about the plot would be unfair to the film’s pace and mystery.)
Action scenes predominate, but even here it follows the more traditional arc of building momentum towards a breakneck third act rather than just hitting the accelerator at scene one and never letting up. Thus, there is some time for some quiet scenes about kids being kids, young love, grief, confusion, and self-discovery. I’ve already heard buzz among early reviews of some critics liking the first half of the film more than the second. I would agree with that assessment with the caveat that it is not so much that the last act is bad or derails the film as that it is a tad more generic than the set up and so feels like a bit more of a let down than it really is.
The skinny: this is a very enjoyable, big budget summer film that puts some effort into writing and character development while having plenty of special effects, action, chases, and explosions. Temper your expectations just a tad (the people most likely to be disappointed will be the ones who try to will it over the line into being awesome instead of just good) and you should have a great time.
And please, please, please, make this movie successful. We’re running out of Twilight and Harry Potter movies, so if someone doesn’t keep developing new stories, next year it’s going to be all comic books all the time.