It's 1979 and Joe Lamb's life hasn't been going very well. The quiet 13-year-old recently lost his mom to an accident at the local steel mill. Four months later, her absence is an overwhelming loss that emotionally amounts to a daily gut punch.
Joe's dad, the town's deputy sheriff, isn't much help. Their relationship never was all that great, and now it's virtually nonexistent. Other than occasional nods in each other's direction, their only real discussion lately was about Dad's plan to get rid of Joe for the summer by sending him to baseball camp. Not a promising prospect as far as the younger Lamb is concerned.
The one thing that he is kind of looking forward to is helping out with his pal Charles' film. With a handful of friends they're shooting a homemade Super 8mm zombie flick that they hope will make it into a local film contest. Even cooler is the fact that Charles convinced Alice Dainard to play the female lead.
As far as Joe's concerned, Alice is the prettiest girl—and soon to be cutest zombie—in all of Lillian, Ohio. She made the whole crew nearly cry when she practiced Charles' script. And for some reason she doesn't mind talking to an insignificant middle school nobody like Joe. Things just might be looking up.
But then, while the kids are filming a scene at the train depot, a guy drives his pickup directly into an oncoming freight. The massive wreck nearly kills them all.
The terrified kids haven't got a clue what's just happened. But their little Super 8 holds evidence. When they ran for their lives, it kept filming. And amidst the wreckage it spotted something very creepy. Something that no one outside of a place called Area 51 was ever supposed to see. A scary something that's about to change everything in young Joe Lamb's life.
The overarching message mashed into this sci-fi thriller is that "bad things happen, but you can still live." In fact, Joe says exactly that at one point. The film also points out that sometimes it takes something outlandish to jar us out of our own pit of despair and help us see the things of real value in life. For two of the kids and their dads, that equates to a closer, loving relationship. And Charles' family reaches out to Joe after his mother's death, inviting him to share their dinner table. He's told, "There's always a place for you here, Joe. You know that."
Someone approaches Joe's dad, Jack, to humbly apologize for a wrong he feels he was part of. And even though Jack harbors deep resentment about the situation, he (eventually) forces himself to let go of his pain and anger and at least try to forgive the man.
Young Joe turns out to be a hero when the going gets tough. He puts his life on the line and steps up to protect and save Alice. He encourages her to not say negative things about her dad.
Do alien beasties equate to spiritual beings? A judgment from God? I didn't think so either. But it's still worth mentioning here that part of the plot revolves around a psychic connection that's initiated by touch.
Charles' big sis, Jennifer, is seen several times in short shorts and a cropped top. The camera lingers on her bare midriff. The local film store clerk repeatedly asks Charlie about his "hot" sister and goes out of his way to win her favor.
It's obvious that Joe and Alice are a tad smitten with each other, much to Charles' chagrin. When Alice is made up as a zombie she shambles toward Joe and reaches out as if to bite him—leaving fake-blood lip prints on his neck.
The '70s tune "My Sharona," which plays a couple of times, contains sexually suggestive lyrics.
The train wreck that kicks off the movie's action is probably the most electrifying, ear-pummeling, physics-bending freight train crash ever recorded on film. It is intensely realistic. (Except when it's intensely unrealistic!) That scene alone contains more explosions and theater-shaking thumps than many smaller-budget action films include in their entire length.
When the kids discover the man who initiated the crash, he's still alive but badly slashed and streaming blood from his head and face. He points a gun at them and commands that they leave quickly, saying, "They will kill you. Do not speak of this or else you and your parents will die."
They turn out to be the U.S. military, which burns out a nearby field with flamethrowers to force an evacuation. When their tanks and rocket launchers start to spontaneously ignite, they blow the place to smithereens. Vehicles are crushed and detonated. Homes are set afire. Joe and his pals are pummeled and tossed around by explosive concussions in the midst of this. And an exploding shell breaks a kid's leg, leaving bone shards sticking out through his skin. (We see it from a distance.)
Since the movie's trailers more than just hint at it, I won't really spoil much by writing that the military train that crashes is holding … let's call it an interstellar creature that escapes and terrorizes the nearby town. Although we don't really get a good look at it until later in the film, we do see heavy equipment, cars and household appliances being thrown around and smashed into bits by the enormous beast. Shrieking and over-amplified sounds add to the onscreen destruction.
We see a number of people snatched up off the ground or dragged away screaming by the monster's super-long arm and massive claw. Several soldiers are bloodied and at least two are killed by the beast. When Joe makes his way to the creature's lair, we see a number of people hanging head down from the ceiling. The immediate implication is that they are being held as food, but we discover that several are alive, and we never seen the creature actually do anything with them.
An intense scene features one of the central characters being grabbed and held up close to the creature's terrifying face.
The kids' Super 8 zombie movie—which is played in its entirety during the credits—sports some (very unrealistic) blood flow. One zombie, for example, has its head supposedly impaled on a grouping of nails, and another takes a (cap gun) blast to the chest.
Crude or Profane Language
One f-word and over 30 s-words lead the profanity pack, but barely. God's and Jesus' names are misused nearly 30 times. And there are over a dozen uses of "h‑‑‑." "A‑‑" and "d‑‑n" are spit out a handful of times each. We also hear "b‑‑ch," and "p‑‑‑y," "d‑‑k" and "douche" are used as put-downs.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Alice's father is known to be a drunkard. We see him intoxicated twice—one time he's thrown out of a funeral; another time he ends up crashing his car. We also see him sitting in his living room with a cigarette and a bottle of booze. Alice says that her dad called in sick—after a night of drinking—on the day Joe's mom was killed.
Jack takes Joe to dinner at a local café and drinks a beer. A woman smokes at a town meeting. The film store guy smokes marijuana and reports, "Just so you know, I'm massively stoned right now." He also offers to sell Charles and Joe some of his stash.
A man is injected with an unknown drug, and he dies in a series of full body spasms.
Other Negative Elements
At various times, Joe and his friends purposely and callously break the rules their parents have laid out. For example, Alice takes her father's car without permission (and without a license). They all sneak out at midnight to shoot part of their film. Joe and Alice continue hanging out together even though their parents have forbidden them to do so. Charles casually steals money from his mom to get his film developed. And a couple of the kids break into their middle school.
"You can trust me. My dad will never know," Joe says when Alice worries about him being the son of a police officer.
Jack, for his part, knocks out a soldier with the man's rifle, then steals his clothes to impersonate him.
During times of high stress, one of Joe's friends has a tendency to vomit—which is played as a joke. Another friend seems to have a seriously unhealthy passion for blowing things up. He combines fireworks to create bigger bangs. And a kid tells him, "Your obsession with fireworks concerns me … and my mother."
The military personnel in charge of cleaning up after the train wreck are portrayed as duplicitous and untrustworthy men who are ready and willing, even eager to destroy the town in order to obtain their objective. Their commanding officer, Colonel Nelec, among other things, illegally incarcerates Jack and orders the death of another man.
It's really hard not to compare writer/director J.J. Abrams' new sci-fi flick to some of Steven Spielberg's old hits from the past. (Spielberg produced Super 8.) From an action perspective it feels very much like an homage to the likes of E.T. and Jurassic Park, with just enough Dharma Initiative reel-to-reel mystery thrown in to give things that patented Abrams vibe.
The production values are top-notch. The young heroes are believable and endearing (particularly in the case of star Elle Fanning, who plays Alice). And the story isn't all about blowing stuff up. (Just mostly!) We do see some family-reconciliation heart emerge amid the creature-feature chills.
So the violence goes a little crazy at times. The kids aren't exactly model citizens. And the military (quite unnecessarily) takes it on the chin. But leaving the screening after the credits rolled, I still couldn't help feeling that Super 8 could've and should've been this summer's picture to beat. Except for one thing: It really doesn't want to be the summer flick to beat. At least not by Plugged in's way of reckoning.
This may be a movie full of kids. And this may be a production with a kid's sense of moviemaking wonder. But Abrams pumped his script up with so much profanity—much of it jumping out of the kids' mouths—that he sends a possibly unintentional but still crystal clear message to families: Don't even try to find out what's inside that train!