The first indication that this is a throwback and homage to science fiction of the 70s and 80s, is the Amblin logo that came up at the start. After all, Steven Spielberg had given the world Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and ET, two major alien films that had strong characterization and a compelling storyline filled with plenty of human drama, compared to these days when the attention is all focused on who can come up with the baddest looking aliens that can wreck havoc on Earth. Even Spielberg himself had a go with the modern update to War of the Worlds that failed to capture the charm of his earlier sci-fi films.
So he took on the producing role, partnering with J.J. Abrams who took on writing and directing responsibilities for Super 8, in what I would deem very ET like, except for the fact that the alien encounter is anything but friendly to a certain extent, more like District 9 style where us humans basically like to, as far as the movies go, enslave anything that falls down from the sky, sending in the military might to overpower, and like Paul said it, exploiting all alien technology and capability before sending them for a lobotomy and autopsy. In case you're wondering, no this is not a Cloverfield prequel or sequel, since the net was abuzz with such speculation given its teasing trailer, and Abrams' own credits as producer of Matt Reeves' film.
The story has to be kept under wraps, so what I'll do is to fawn over what worked. There will be quarters who may find it a tad too convenient in the way it ended, but I thought that simplicity is beauty - too often these days we're looking for that surprise ending or smart alecky gimmick, that something so effectively bringing the curtains down on a thrill ride get frowned upon, which is a pity because in essence the film reminds us of the days gone where such tricks need not be resorted to, so long as one had a solid story to tell, which is what Super 8 has in abundance in weaving closed loops in its narrative threads, with mystery, action, drama and romance all rolled into one superb summer blockbuster package.
Then there's the casting of relative unknowns, and children at that, who did such a superb job they put their older, seasoned counterparts in the industry to shame. We don't see too many films these days where the protagonists are a group of children embarking on that huge adventure, or in this instance, indulging in their passion for, filmmaking! There's portly Charles (Riley Griffiths) the director and writer, his best chum Joe (Joel Courtney) the makeup artist who both have the same crush over their leading lady Alice (Elle Fanning) to form one romantic angle, and not forgetting lead actor Martin (Gabriel Basso), cameraman Preston (Zach Mills) and pyrotechnics and effects specialist Cary (Ryan Lee), all sharing incredible chemistry together as a team working toward a common goal in making a short film in their small town, only to stumble upon an aged old military secret that threatens their way of life.
Adequately peppered with comedy balanced with that sense of mystery and tension throughout, J.J. Abrams leaves you consistently wanting more, feeding off nuggets of minute information bits that he reveals a little at a time. I thoroughly appreciated how everything need not be spelt out in verbose, allowing emotions to come through more genuinely as you feel for the characters involved, though leaving the pieces of the puzzle simple enough for anyone to put them all together. Then there's the tease of not showing you the threat, leaving things for the most parts to your imagination, before the inevitable show hand.
Action sequences are what you'd come to expect from a summer film, with the tent pole being the spectacular train crash sequence that began with the little filmmakers wanting a little added production value to their film, which in itself - the train rolling by; anyone who had experienced something similar would attest to that relatively nerve wrecking moment - giving way to a larger scale disaster that made it literally rain metal. Other action moments weren't as big scaled as this one was, though no less crafted with subtlety that demonstrated some degree of confidence not to overindulge in the need for special effects shots, again adding to the mystique that the children and their town had to face.
But credit will have to go to the trio of Joel Courtney, Riley Griffiths and Elle Fanning, who all did such a great job to anchor their roles. Dakota will probably be looking over her shoulders given her sister's performance in this film, while I'm pretty sure offers will start knocking on the doors of Joel and Riley as the next potential child actors that we will see more of in time to come, who together with the rest of the young cast had the weight of this film carried on their shoulders, if the film were to succeed it will have to depend on the believability of their banter, antics and chemistry, which as mentioned, were really excellent.
Oh and don't head out the door once the end credits start to roll, especially if you're curious to know how the group's short film actually turned out to be. Easily one of the best, and potentially the favourite scene of many. At least I know it is for me! Highly recommended, and it waltzes its way into contention to be amongst the best this year had to offer.