Dir. J.J. Abrams
Starring: Joel Courtney, Elle Fanning, Kyle Chandler, Riley Griffiths
J.J. Abrams has too many good ideas floating round in his head. The difficulty is in harnessing them before they go all squoodgy. When he makes television series they drag on for ever until the audience no longer has any idea what is happening or has already happened and have given up on them. Evidence for the prosecution: Alias and Lost, both of which I started off loving and then lost interest in. Thankfully with movies he is forced to slap together an entire plot arc in less than two hours. In Super 8 he has some great ideas, a lovely storyline, some top notch special effects and 15 minutes still to spare. Seeing what Abrams is capable of when he controls himself makes me nostalgic for what his TV series could have been if he’d only been kept on a tighter rein.
Mind you, with Super 8 he has Steven Spielberg as producer to keep him in check. From the moment the Amblin Entertainment logo (of Elliot and E.T. on their bicycle) appears at the beginning I felt we were in sfae territory. And indeed, Super 8 is almost a homage to those ‘80s kids classics that Spielberg either directed (E.T.) or produced (The Goonies). Like those classics it is the children that take centre stage here before being caught up in an out-of-this-world adventure. Literally. Joe (Joel Courtney) is one of a group of young friends helping Charles (Riley Griffiths) make an amateur zombie movie on his super 8 film camera. Filming one night at the local railway station they are witnesses to an explosive train crash. Joe witnesses… something… smash its way out of the wreckage before the US Air Force arrives to quarantine the area.
Over the next few days things get strange. Things go missing: dogs, telephone wires and microwaves and car engines, even the sheriff. This latter disappearance forces Joe’s father Jack (Kyle Chandler) to assume his position, coming into conflict with Colonel Nelec (Noah Emmerich), the secretive head of the Air Force task force.
The key plotline surrounds this crash and the extraterrestrial creature released by it. This is no E.T.: it is a huge, many-limbed beast with a taste for human flesh. But, like E.T., it just wants to go home. Its motivations are entirely human – more so than those of Nelec truth be told. It takes Joe who is himself still hurting from the death of his mother to see it not as just a threat, but as an individual, scared, abused and far from home: “I know bad things happen. Bad things happen. But you can still live.” The world may be big and unknowable to schoolkids but they can think with their heart.
This film has lots of heart. Seeing an alien on the rampage and their hometown turned into a warzone may be the most fantastic part of their incredible adventure, but on the way they learn a lot about life, love, friends and family. In the midst of a crisis they containue to play and film their movie. Joe is still reeling from his mother’s death and unable to connect with his father, but he is carried through it all by his friends. He also experiences first love with Alice (Elle Fanning). It would have been nice to get a bit more characterisation from the other kids. Wannabe Hitchcock Charles with his loud sprawling family come fully-fleshed. But it would have been nice to know more of the backgrounds of borderline pyromaniac Cary (Ryan Lee), Martin (Gabriel Basso), the star of Charles’s ‘The Case’ who spends most of his time puking in shock, and Preston (Zach Mills), ‘the other one’. But they all interact well. There is a moment when they sit in a diner bickering while Alice watches them with amazement. There is a genuine warmth to their friendship, and one feels that Alice has never before experienced anything like it. There is humour to their interactions. They break out of a military evacuation camp to go back to search for Alice. Charles wails “I can’t believe we’re breaking into the school. Who does that? Nobody does that. Idiots do that!” Another favourite line is when they discover their getaway driver stoned. Martin’s comment? “Oh, drugs are so bad!”
To go with this humour there are some remarkable special effects. The train wreck is gob-smackingly awesome. For that segment it is almost like a Michael Bay film has been transplanted into the middle of Super 8. This only serves to highlight the differences between Bay’s mindless explosion-driven films and this one, where a sudden catastrophe drives forward a satisfying plot full of wit and emotional intelligence. Yes, okay, a train derailment is unlikely to be that dramatic in real life. But I, for one, was willing to suspend belief in the excitement of the moment.
I didn’t really know much about Super 8 before watching it. It was only released last year but I haven’t heard anyone raving about it. I might start the trend. It is really enjoyable. It is The Goonies for the 2010s. I encourage you to go see it.
What have I learnt about Ohio?
The area featured is an industrial area – or it was in 1979 when the film was set anyway. It has a steel mill and a chemical plant. It also has an air force base. The sheriff’s department are amiable individuals but unprepared for a crisis. The military pay them no heed. To them Lilian is just a small town they can boss around at will. The homes are modest, and yet they have the sort of gadgets that would not become common in the UK for at least another five years: home video cameras, Walkmans, microwaves.
Can we go there?
It says a lot that one of the things about this film that made me happiest is that at one point the town of Lilian is clearly marked on a map. From this we can see that it is located west of Dayton, Ohio, roughly halfway to Eaton, near West Alexandria. This makes sense if the Air Force train was transporting the alien and its craft from Area 51 in Nevada to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton; as any armchair ufologist can tell you some of the retrieved wreckage from the Roswell Incident was shipped up to Wright-Patterson, which was later the home of Project Blue Book. Wright-Patterson AFB can actually be visited – or at least the National Museum of the US Air Force can be.
Sadly Lilian, Ohio, does not really exist. The town used was just – just – outside of Ohio: Weirton which sits just across the Ohio River in a five-mile wide strip of West Virginia sandwiched between Ohio and Pennsylvania. Weirton was also the shooting location for Reckless and some scenes in The Deer Hunter. The water tower was constructed just off Weirton’s Main Street. Weirton Electrical Supply on Main Street was turned into the Olsen Camera Store. The diner scene I mentioned was filmed in Cathy’s Pies and Sandwiches (also on Main Street). Joe and Charles lived in Weirton Heights around Ferwood Avenue and Crystal Lane); Alice and her father lived over on Avenue F. The tank battle – including the image of a tank wheeling through a children’s playground – was also created in Weirton Heights by the intersections of S. 17th and S. 20th Streets. Marland Heights Community Church became Lilian Middle School. Wheeling Ohio County Airport was used for Lilian Airfield in the film. The Weirton Museum has published details specifying where much of the action took place.
Overall Rating: 5/5