Urban Cinefile
"I think that great cinema is national cinema...that reflects its originating country. And I want to make cinema about Australia."  -Geoff Burton, cinematographer
 The World of Film in Australia - on the Internet Updated Sunday July 12, 2020 

Printable page PRINTABLE PAGE



In the summer of 1979, a group of young school friends in a small Ohio town led by aspiring director Charles (Riley Griffiths) and junior make-up trainee Joe (Joel Courtney) witness a catastrophic train crash while making a Super 8 zombie movie starring Alice (Elle Fanning) and soon suspect that there is more to the accident than meets the eye. Unusual disappearances and violent, inexplicable events begin to take place in town, and as US military swarm the town, Joe's dad Jackson (Kyle Chandler), the local Deputy Sheriff, tries to uncover the truth - which turns out to more terrifying than any of them could have imagined.

Review by Louise Keller:
J.J. Abrams rekindles the child in all of us in this super film that is all at once sci-fi thriller, mystery adventure and coming of age story. It's got heart, too. But never mind the labels; it's refreshing to find a film for all ages that works on every level. The skill of Abrams' screenplay lies in its simplicity. From its core, the film grows in scale and emotional impact.

Set in 1979 in a small town in Ohio, about a group of ordinary kids who want to make a Super 8 zombie movie. When they witness a catastrophic train-crash, weird things begin to happen and life changes.

Even though the protagonists are young teens, don't be fooled into thinking this is a movie just for kids. Thoroughly enjoyable, the film is involving, entertaining, moving, funny and scary. Abrams cleverly grounds us with his well developed characters and we can readily identify with their issues about rivalry, loss, friendship - and fathers.

The film begins by establishing the emotional state of its young protagonist Joe Lamb (Courtney) whose mother has recently been killed in a workplace accident at the local steel plant. There's tension between Joe and his Deputy Sheriff father (Chandler) and it's easy to understand why the youngster wants to escape from his own painful reality. Being make-up artist for the zombie movie his bossy, chubby friend Charles (Griffiths) is making seems to be the perfect remedy.

In his first screen role, Courtney is a real find: natural, vulnerable and open, his dialogue and actions well suited to a 14 year old. All the kids are good, with special mention to Elle Fanning, terrific as Alice, whose affections both Joe and Charles crave and who also has issues with her father (Eldard). Ryan Lee plays the kid with braces and a mischievous grin; humour creeps in nicely at unexpected times as relationships and action mesh smoothly together.

Look out for the railway platform sequence when the friends meet secretly at midnight to shoot a scene using the oncoming train as backdrop. We see the expression on Joe's face as he watches Alice delivering her lines, tears welling up in her expressive eyes. We know without a doubt, this is the moment he is falling in love for the first time. There's something intrinsically pure about the way this blossoming relationship is portrayed.

It is at this emotional high point that all the drama occurs, beginning with the dramatic train crash, followed by its shattering and bizarre consequences. Dogs leave town, objects go missing and people begin to vanish. What are those strange items that look like Rubik cubes that the military is intent on locking away? And what is Operation Walking Distance? When the army gets involved and the town is evacuated, the mystery magnifies and things become increasingly chaotic.

It's a great rollercoaster ride onto which the kids are swept. The special effects are well done and by the time there is a clear view of a gargantuan creature on top of an overturned, mangled army bus, don't be surprised if your heart is pounding loudly.

This is a film filled with many layers and textures delivering more than you might expect. Don't rush away before the end credits, when we see the boys' completed Super 8 zombie film. As we know, truth is often stranger than fiction: it was the Super 8 film Abrams made when he was about 15 that brought him to Steven Spielberg's attention. Abrams repaired Spielberg's 8mm home movies and now they have jointly produced this film.
Published first in the Sun-Herald

Review by Andrew L. Urban:
Anyone who has wanted to make a short film - whether on Super 8 film stock or in the new digital format - will sympathise with the youngsters of Lillian, Ohio, attempting to make a film to enter in a local competition. Charles (Riley Griffiths) is a tubby but determined young director who clearly has taken the task seriously. The way he bosses his crew and cast around would make an experienced director proud.

Among his small crew is Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney), a dab hand at special effects make up, which is handy when you're making a zombie movie. Joe has recently lost his mum in a terrible accident at the Lillian steel works, leaving him and his policeman dad, Jackson (Kyle Chandler) in a sombre mood. But Joe brightens up when Charles convinces Alice (Elle Fanning) to play a leading role in the film. Joe has a crush on Alice and now he can be close to her.

As they're shooting a night scene beside the railway tracks on an old unused platform, a freight train hurtles past - as they expected. But in seconds it is torn apart as it smashes into a truck bouncing along the tracks. The driver, Dr Woodward (Glynn Turman) an old school master, survives, but he is soon whisked off by the military to a secure field hospital - and the mystery of what he knew becomes a crucial part of the plot.

The young filmmakers set out to find out for themselves what this amazing accident is all about, intrigued by the small white cubes, reminiscent of a Rubik puzzle, which are scattered everywhere - before being quickly collected by the army.

All the classic elements of a sci-fi movie for the family have been collected as if writing a recipe, with the benign shadow of producer Steven Spielberg hanging over the project. The children are well written characters and are performed effectively by a young cast which avoids trying to be cute.

Elle Fanning is lovely as Alice and all the boys are excellent; Joel Courtney as Joe is a natural, as is Riley Griffiths as Charles the director, Joel's friend. Ryan Lee makes an impression as the firecracker-loving Cary with the buck teeth under guard by huge braces.

The adults are all fine in support roles, and the mysterious force that is the cause of all the action is not revealed until the final act. The setting of a small town is another classic device, establishing a sense of community, brought together by an outside threat. Joe's gently simmering relationship with Alice adds an edge to the tension when she disappears, and the Super 8 movie that started it all has a useful role in the revelation of the mystery.

The military behaves as scripted in every American sci-fi movie, bristling with guns and bravado. All these elements are familiar - so much so that Super 8 fits snugly into its genre, without the leap of originality that would raise it to new heights.

The spectacular train crash at the beginning is perhaps TOO spectacular and TOO extensive, the survival of the driver in the truck on the rails is TOO incredible and the resolution in which the climactic confrontation takes place is TOO Spielberg.

It's certainly not a bad movie, but the emotional payoffs are a little soft, and the conflicts of character are all too neatly resolved. Do stay for the end credits, at least to see how their Super 8 movie might have turned out.
Published first in Spectrum

Email this article

Favourable: 1
Unfavourable: 0
Mixed: 1

J.J.ABRAMS INTERVIEW - to be published June 12

(US, 2011)

CAST: Elle Fanning, Riley Griffiths, Kyle Chandler, Joel Courtney, Jessica Tuck, Amanda Michalka, Joel McKinnon Miller, Ryan Lee, Zach Mills, Garbiel Basso, Ron Eldard, Noah Emmerich, Glynn Turman

PRODUCER: J. J. Abrams, Steven Spielberg, Bryan Burk

DIRECTOR: J. J. Abrams

SCRIPT: J. J. Abrams


EDITOR: Maryann Brandon, Mary Jo Markey

MUSIC: Michael Giacchino


RUNNING TIME: 110 minutes



Urban Cinefile 1997 - 2020