It is always a delight for a film to boast fine performances of subtle nuance and palpable emotion. It is even more delightful when those Oscar-worthy performances come from actors who have not yet attained voting age. Such is the case of SUPER 8, and it is all the more important in a film that uses big, booming special effects to tell its story. The blockbuster budget involved doesnt for a millisecond get in the way of the fact that this is a film told by J.J. Abrams on a very human scale about the innocence of childhood pitted against the worst elements the human condition can manifest.
The emphasis on emotion is made from the first shot, in which a factory accident forces Joe (Joel Courtney) to deal with the loss of his mother and facing his distant father (Kyle Chandler) without her mitigating influence. Distracted from that tragedy by best friend Charles obsession with making a film worthy of festival competition, Joe is soon sneaking out of his house at midnight to film a scene at a deserted railway station. The addition of Alice (Elle Fanning), Joes secret crush, to the cast turns out not to be the most exciting part of the evening. That would be the spectacular train crash that occurs while they are filming, followed by the revelation that it wasnt an accident, and the further revelation that telling anyone about what they have seen will result in them being killed, along with their families. What ensues is as much about Joe coming to terms with his new relationship with his father as it does the government cover-up, complete with military intervention in the small Ohio town where Joe lives.
Setting the film in 1979 helps with setting the acute sense of dread about the mysterious doings. There is no internet, there are no cell phones to circulate information. The first glimpse of a Walkman actually prevents an early break in the case as a clerk zones out of reality as mayhem noisily takes its toll. Using the idiom of a B-horror film is a stroke of genius, as Charles frets over flow in his script, and adding a love story on which to hinge the emotional tug of his zombie epic. Abrams echoes the mechanics described in such loving detail by the novice filmmaker yet the device does anything but cheapen the effect. It actually enhances it. This is in no small measure because of his choice to not focus on the major events in play, from the explosion of railway cars to the mysterious arrest at the gathering after Joes mother is buried. Rather, as all hell breaks loose in a variety of ways, its Courtneys face that is on screen, curious, tentative, astonished, elated, or devastated. He is more than the audiences surrogate, he is the audiences moral compass throughout. At the height of the looming disaster, the most crushing moment is a showdown between father and son that is without doubt the turning point in their new relationship, where one wrong word will result in mutual, permanent alienation. Flying automobiles, dastardly military officers, Alices shriek when she sees what it is the entire town is up against, they are all nothing to the tense moments as father and son stare one another down with their future relationship on the line.
As for the flying vehicles, amoral military, and that screaming, it forms a gripping backdrop that builds slowly from the oddity of a spiked cube Joe picks up at the crash site, to pets decamping en masse from town, to the climactic confrontations, emotional and physical. The tension is insidious and insistent, with pacing that allows for breathers to the action, but not the suspense.
Yet its not the special effects that will have the most impact on the audience, nor will it be what lingers in the memory. That would be Courtney conveying the entire spectrum of what its like to discover the world beyond Joes childhood, and Fanning giving a performance beyond the abilities of actors much older, much more seasoned. A performance that ebbs and flows with nuance, that catches a fleeting moment with concise precision that is as effortless as it is devastating. This is what makes SUPER 8 the masterpiece of filmmaking that it is.