Super 8: Explained In Detail

Super 8 is a movie directed by J J Abrams and produced by Stephen Spielberg. Writing about it almost ten years later, it would be better to lead with the current favourite in this genre, Stranger Things. If you love Stranger things and you miss the show’s vibe, you might want to watch Super 8 and jump right back to the 80s set, great characters played by children racing around their small town in bicycles and solving strange happenings with adults mysteriously unaware of most of it. With all things the 80s making a comeback in recent years – in music, disco rhythms, fashion and shows, it makes sense to give Super 8 another go. Here’s the plot and ending of Super 8 explained; spoilers ahead.

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Super 8: Plot Explained

J J Abrams and Spielberg wanted to recreate that charm of the 70s and 80s when things were much simpler. When portable music was still beginning to take shape in a walkman. A home video was precious because it was shot on an 8mm film reel that needed processing, and the fastest one could process it was 3 days. When hangout was actually in a place without a zillion messages and phone calls to make it happen. When it was the time of Blondie, Disco and the Ramones wearing the bold colours and stripes of that era. All this with a thriller and suspense brewing in the backdrop. Having enjoyed so many Abrams movies and TV series, this one came with a lot of expectations. 

The Kids

Super 8 starts in Lillian, a small town in the US. It is 4 months after the death of Joe’s mother in a factory accident. 12-year-old Joe Lamb is helping Charles Kaznyk make an 8mm zombie short film, “The case”, to enter a competition at a film festival. A time when zombie movies weren’t done to death! We get to see the prep for the next scene. The other boys acting in the film are Cary, a cheerful pyromaniac, always in high spirits. Martin, who plays the lead, Detective Hathaway, is nerdy, usually worried about things and edgy but the only one with the height and gait of an adult. Preston, who is concerned about Cary’s obsession with blowing things up. Joe is in charge of the movie’s props, makeup and models. Already having filmed a few scenes and an excellent Zombie murder with Cary, Charles wants to add more depth to the movie by introducing Detective Hathaway’s wife into the storyline, enter Alice Dainard. 

Alice is the daughter of Louis Dainard, who doesn’t get along with Joe’s dad Deputy Jackson Lamb. We are not told if they have had issues earlier, but the death of Joe’s mother at the factory, who took Louis Dainard’s shift, feels like the final straw between them. 

Super 8: The Train Wreck

super 8 production value

All the kids drive to the train station in the Dainard car to shoot a new scene. Alice gives them a brilliant rehearsal with Detective Hathaway, but just then, Charles notices the train arriving and hurries them to get ready to shoot the actual scene because – “Production Value!”. What unfolds next is perhaps the most action-packed accident, with uncountable near-death misses for the kids.

The train derails because of a car on the track and how it derails! Freight cars flying in the air, fire everywhere, things falling from the sky all around the kids, train stations decimated, all a terrible mess. Once things stop flying around, the kids find themselves miraculously safe, and so is their car (wow!). But they also notice numerous white cubes strewn around the area the train was carrying. Joe picks up one of the cubes for his model collection. They find the car that derailed the train and realise their science teacher Dr Woodward who was driving and is badly injured but somehow still alive! He warns the kids to never talk about what they saw there that night, or they will all die. The kids make it out just in time before the Air force personnel’s arrival to secure whatever was on the train. Little do the kids know that their camera has captured the most important evidence of what was on the train. This exciting scene opens up to a promising storyline. One that you hope JJ Abrams and Steven Speilberg will follow through.

The show must go on

Super 8 the show must go on

Despite the turnout of the previous evening, the kids use the “production value” offered by the train wreckage and DR Woodward’s house being searched by the military as a backdrop to shoot two other scenes. Prepping and makeup for these scenes help Alice and Joe get to know each other better; they have an easy friendship and a good understanding as if they have known each other for a long time. Alice gets to see all the models that Joe meticulously makes. She also understands why Joe always carries the necklace with him – the one that belonged to his mom, as she had worn that since he was born until she passed away.

One evening, the Sheriff of the town drops into the mart at the gas station. He calls the convenience store employee Breen’s new Walkman ‘a slippery slope’, kids walking around with their own stereo – oops, we can no longer go without our entire music collection even for a minute today Mr-Sheriff-of-the-80s. When he turns to leave after filling the gas, he starts to hear strange noises. All the neighbourhood dogs running away, the police radio glitching, a thundering down metal trash cans and a heavy swoop of wind whisking him away to the music of “Heart of Glass” by Blondie playing loudly in Breen’s Walkman. 

The Alien

Breen turns around to see a shattered car with no Sheriff and comes out to investigate (bad idea!). We get the first glimpse of the creature/monster in the reflection of the oil spill just before it attacks Breen. A thrilling scene altogether that gives the essence of the creature and its power and strength without revealing it. A monster-flick suspense scene done well. Next day, another such incident happens where a lineman is out replacing a mile of copper missing on the poles that has mysteriously disappeared. He witnesses the iconic trampling of trees from a high vantage point, the danger inching ever so closer to him, and he disappears from his man lift/bucket truck. Another scene with the anticipation of a monster approaching. One that the audience is curious to see, know and meet.

The Military

Colonel Nelec and the military have been very secretive. They do not divulge any information to the local police of Lillian, resulting in a few verbal clashes between Deputy Jack Lamb and Nelec. Meanwhile, with the Sheriff missing, all complaints come to Deputy Jack Lamb about missing engine parts, missing microwaves, missing people and runaway dogs, with the military now driving into Lillian searching for something. Jack chances upon the channel (from a resident) on which the air force is communicating and overhears them planning some operation called “Walking distance”.

When Jack Lamb meets Colonel Nelec to get some answers, he gets placed under military arrest without any warning. Nelec is holding Dr Woodward in the same army camp, and he is still trying to extract information from him about his old research material and how and what he knows about the creature. Dr Woodward realises he is going to be killed, and his last words end up being, “He is in me, as I am in him. So, when you see him next, and I am sure you will, I’ll be watching you too.”

Somewhere around here, what could have been an excellent movie, takes a deviation. Even though the subsequent events and thrilling scenes are great, their final impact and consequence on the overall plot start to dilute. 

Alice’s Abduction

We see Alice get captured by the creature, which Louis Dainard witnesses from the rearview mirror of his car after he meets with an accident. They have an argument over where Alice had gone, which was to Joe’s house. Next morning, Charles and Joe get the developed film caught during the train wreckage to see if there is any usable footage. They play the movie and realise their camera has captured the creature from the train and are shocked to see it, something that looks like a massive spider moving sideways from the broken and fallen camera. 

Burn it up

The town disaster alarm goes off, and Lilian is evacuated to a centre nearby because of a wildfire. A wildfire created by the Air Force under Operation ‘Walking Distance’, but of course, none of the residents know that. All the residents are evacuated to a military facility with the town sealed off. At the evacuation centre, while Joe looks for his father, he finds an injured and drugged Louis Dainard, who tells him that Alice was taken by the monster and no one believes him.

Dr Woodward’s Backstory

Joe and the rest of the kids escape from the evacuation centre with Donny in his car. They want to find some clue in Dr Woodward’s research material, which they guess is in his permanently parked trailer in their school’s parking lot. When they reach the school and break into the trailer, they find a lot of material, including many video reels and tapes. Using a projector, they start seeing old B&W silent video tapes from 1958 with audio recorded separately from Nellis Air Force base, where Dr Woodward was dishonourably discharged in 1963. 

Super 8: The Alien’s Backstory

super 8 alien creature

In the tape marked as the 1958 incident, they realise that the creature is an alien species more sophisticated than humans. The Alien is primarily subterranean; he only wanted to rebuild his ship – a ship made out of white cubes of complex shape-shifting alloy. But in all the time he was held captive by the Air Force and Colonel Nelec, the Alien was treated without compassion or respect since he crashed in 1958. Experimented and tortured. Dr Woodward thinks that the Alien didn’t come to earth to harm or hate humans. Over time, the Alien begins hating humans and turns into an enemy because of the pain inflicted on him.

Dr Woodward knew this because the Alien made contact with him once while trying to feed him. The Alien grabbed him and created a psychic link between the two, which is why Woodward was able to understand the Alien. He never forgot that, even after he was thrown out of the Nellis Air force base. Watching the footage and listening to the audio, the kids realise that Dr Woodward was trying to help the Alien escape and help him rebuild the spaceship. Joe realises that when he was at the graveyard by his mother’s grave, he saw digging through the shed window, and that might have been the Alien as he is a subterranean species. By then, the military arrives along with Nelec and takes away the kids and Dr Woodward’s research material, while Donny is getting stoned in the car outside and watches the army bus roll out with the kids.

Yikes, Spider!

On their way back, the military personnel and the kids locked in the bus get attacked by the Alien. For the first time, we get to see how the alien actually looks – a giant spider creature attacking the bus. In this intense scene, the creature rolls the bus over and kills the men until only Nelec is left. The kids at the back of the bus are trying desperately to get out through the glass roof. Nelec fights the Alien with a machine gun. The Alien takes his time taunting Nelec, clearly acknowledging their bad blood. In the midst of this, the kids manage to get off the bus. The Alien kills Nelec and leaves the scene. Donny somehow manages to drive the car and get to where the bus is overturned.

Deeper Underground

The kids return to the town and realise the army tanks are all running free, misfiring everywhere – including all the other weapons. Amidst the misfiring tanks running amok, they try to make it by foot to the cemetery to find the entrance to the subterranean layer. Only Joe and Cary make it as Martin gets injured, and Charles stays back with him. They realise there is a vast underground route dug up through the shed. Using the sparklers that Cary always carries with him, they make it to the heart of the tunnels and find a massive assembly of some kind of machine or apparatus with many people hanging upside down in web/cocoons.

They spot the Alien eating someone, but thankfully also see Alice hanging upside down on the other side, hopefully alive. While the Alien is distracted, Cary blows up some firecrackers and runs away, and Joe goes to the opposite side, gets Alice down and wakes her up. They wake up the Sheriff and another lady in curlers and try to escape, but after running around in circles, they bump into Cary and, sadly, also the Alien. The Alien kills the lady in curlers and the Sheriff. Joe tries to confront him and asks him to leave, but the Alien picks him up. Joe explains to the Alien that he knows bad things happen, but he can still live. There is a moment of self-reflection and understanding because of the psychic link formed from contact with the Alien. 

Super 8 Ending: Leaving On A Spaceship

The Alien opens his eyes fully to see Joe, and simultaneously, the machine he was building turns on. The Alien puts Joe down and gets back to his machine. We then see the kids return to the surface, and the machine that the Alien was building turns on a massive electromagnetic field around the town’s water tank. It starts attracting metallic objects towards the water tank, along with cars, guns, and the millions of white cubes that get dragged out of trailers. 

They start to shape-shift into the form of a spaceship. Both the kid’s dads make it to the spot after Jack Lamb escapes from the military camp and learns at the evacuation camp that his son and the other kids have gone to rescue Alice from a spider-like creature. Jack and Louis make peace on the way to the town. They are happy to see the kids safe. While Jack hugs his son Joe, the Alien gets into the spaceship. Amidst the last of the objects pulled is Joe’s mom’s locket with a picture of his mom and him. Joe decides to let it go. When it joins the other objects on the water tank, everything dematerialises (perhaps somehow powering the ship?), leaving only the water to shower down. The Alien spaceship powers up and leaves the planet.

Super 8 Review: Why it wasn’t as good as it could have been

The Kids didn’t matter

Sadly the actions of any of the kids here didn’t have any significant consequence to the ending of what happens to the Alien; it doesn’t aid or take away from him building the ship or leaving the planet. Everything would have happened as is, with or without them. 

Maybe even Alice would not be harmed as whoever was hung in the underground cave was not eaten by the Alien or used to power the device. 

Even Joe’s crucial moment with the Alien doesn’t amount to any consequence. So the movie leaves you slightly underwhelmed. What was promised as a good movie with potential until a bit more than halfway through, a thriller, a monster flick, and an alien movie in 80s sets leaves you with a certain dissatisfaction. 

No closure

It doesn’t resolve the relationship between the adults and their kids with even a few words. Just a hug is all the script could come up with for that resolution. Other than a few moments between the kids, the human stories amidst the danger were largely absent. Though J J Abrams started off well with all the inspiration from his idol Steven Spielberg but didn’t follow it through to the end.

The Case was better than Super 8

Abrams has drawn inspiration from his own life of making and entering an amateur film festival contest with his friend Matt Reeves in the early 80s. This might also be why the enthusiasm from the kid’s movie-making bits is more entertaining and authentic. Super 8 is definitely a fun, entertaining watch with some thrilling sequences. The movie’s beginning, monster anticipation, people snatching, and even the short Zombie film while the credits roll, ‘The Case’, stays with you longer than the overall plot or the ending. The rest of the movie tries to keep up with the brilliant first act but never achieves it. Super 8 is still a neat one-time watch – the kids and the 80s sets definitely steal the show. 

Super 8: What mysterious things does the Alien cause in Lillian?

  • Steals car engines, microwaves and electric copper wire from poles, all maybe to build the machine to turn on the large electromagnet.
  • All dogs run away from the epicentre of where the Alien was because maybe they could sense this giant creature.
  • Abducts people to feed on them later, as we see him eating someone in the subterranean layer.
  • Creates electromagnetic fields, which can cause guidance systems to break down and make missiles misfire.
  • Creates psychic links with anyone he touches.
  • Causes many objects, not all, to be attracted to the electromagnetic field around the water tank – like Joe says, to build his model.