Review: Super 8.

(J.J. Abrams, 2011, USA)

After having revitalised the Mission:Impossible franchise with its third (and best) installment, and successfully reintroduced Star Trek (2009) to a responsive, contemporary audience two years ago, J.J. Abrams now brings us Super 8 (2011), his very own homage to Spielberg’s legacy of high-class family adventures, most specifically E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977); films which mixed personal family crises like divorce with extraordinary, extraterrestrial circumstances. Evoking such aesthetics, Abrams’ third film is a nostalgic throwback to relatively more simple times where the adventure genre was fueled not by capital gain and dimensional exploitation, but child-like imagination and wonder. If a film of this scale was in any other hands, it would be in 3D for sure, but thankfully it is of a much higher class than its tiresome contemporaries, a film that emphasises the importance of characterisation over tactless CGI shenanigans.

Set in a quiet steel town in 1970’s Ohio, Super 8 follows a ragtag group of film-obsessed teenagers banding together to make their very first foray into the, at the time, analogue world of filmmaking with a zombie picture entitled “The Case” (which we get to see in all its glory during the end credits). Aided only by a super 8 camera, firecrackers for explosions and a beautiful new lead actress (played by the always dependable Elle Fanning), the troupe exhaust numerous locations to play out their tightly written, albeit charmingly amateur script, relying on local spontaneity to capture highly sought-after ‘production value’ shots. This on location mode of production brings the shoot to a rickety, secluded train station on the towns’ outskirts, and whilst filming a pivotal sequence, a large freight train carrying a mysterious creature collides with a renegade truck determined to stop it in its tracks. A sensational crash sequence occurs, followed by a run-in with the driver, who informs them not to tell anyone about what they saw. Yet little did they know that the scene was caught on film, especially a glimpse at the mysterious, escaped creature, something the army are very keen on keeping a tight secret.

Super 8 is effectively two films spliced together; on the one hand it’s a dewy-eyed coming of age tale, on the other an enigmatic monster movie, and Abrams succeeds at drawing as much attention to one side as he does the other. As it clearly has its sights set on the style of movie it wants to be, following the much-imitated, Spielberg-induced template of not showing the monster up until the third act, first witnessed with Jaws (1975), it offers little in the way of structural surprises as it builds to its emotionally satisfying, if a little flat, finale, but even with a disappointing, arachnid-like reveal, Abrams’ giddy fanboy intentions allow the film to rarely teeter on tedium. On the contrary, much fun is to be had watching the evocative period details and the enthusiasm the young filmmakers show for the craft, especially the tempestuous director Charles (newcomer Riley Griffiths) who knows what he wants and how to go about getting it. Like a young Orson Welles only without the booming stature.

Indeed, where the film scores highly is with its cast of young actors, bringing to life their naive adolescents on the cusp of maturity, fully convincing us of their love-hate style friendship; something of a norm for teenagers of that age, and Abrams’ screenplay, most importantly, gives them enough room to breath. Perhaps the biggest ‘name’ in the group, Fanning excels as a wayward teen, but she rarely upstages Joel Courtney, the fresh-faced protagonist whose poignancy as a boy with a recently deceased mother and an emotionally distant father elevates the sometimes plodding focus on the relationships between the younger and the older characters. Fanning’s character, Alice, suffers from a father as overbearing to her as he is on the narrative, coming into focus too late in the game to build any emotional resonance as a man haggard by the past.

Reminiscent of the Abrams-produced Cloverfield (2008), Super 8 does lose its way as the pieces of the puzzle begin to merge and plot holes materialize (whatever happened to the runaway dogs?), yet it is so awash with buoyant nostalgia that it can be forgiven for rarely being as tightly plotted, or timeless, as its cinematic exemplars, instead settling for durable, conscientious entertainment.

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