When JJ Abrams’ Super 8 was first revealed, the mystery that surrounded the film’s announcement suggested something akin to the similarly secretive Abrams production Cloverfield. However, whereas that was a very modern take on the rubber-suit kaiju films of yesteryear, Super 8 is a far more traditional offering than initially expected. In many ways, that’s the point, as it’s an unabashed tribute to the works of Steven Spielberg, not in a pop-culture nudge-nudge wink-wink sort of way, but that recognisable themes and elements found in the likes of Jaws, E.T., Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and The Goonies, form much of Super 8’s cinematic DNA.
It comes at an interesting time for the Godfather of the Summer Blockbuster. After Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull failed to recapture the magic of the original trio, Spielberg has been quiet on the directorial front, focusing instead on the production side of things, with three of the big blockbuster hopefuls of this year (this, plus Transformers: Dark of the Moon, and Cowboy & Aliens) brought to the screen with his backing. But with the double whammy of both Tintin and War Horse in the coming months to look forward to, we’ll see if the sense of adventure is still alive in the great bearded one. However, as a surrogate Spielberg, Abrams has pulled off an impressive feat, creating something unashamedly nostalgic yet not cloying in its pining for times gone by.
In some respects, creating such a blatant love letter to Spielberg when he’s the one producing is effectively him handing Abrams a pen and paper to and asking him to write about how great he is. Certainly, the period setting is something of a shorthand way of achieving parallels with the works it hopes to evoke, as much as it is an easy narrative problem-solver. Removing the Internet and mobile phones from the equation always helps, and the ‘Super 8’ of the title plays a fundamental role, even if it means putting up with rather clunky jokey explanations on what a ‘personal stereo’ is (funny too that the only songs featured are well-known ‘classics’ rather than whatever bilge was probably in the charts at the time).
But beyond that Super 8 is as much a paean to making movies as a kid, as it is whatever was showing at the cinema in your school holidays. Our small-town American heroes are a ragtag group of kids who are determined to spend the summer finishing a zombie film to enter into an amateur video competition. Anyone who’s borrowed their parent’s camera and stayed up late with friends and siblings to make a short piece of filmed nonsense will immediately appreciate the spirit of Super 8. Of course, the ensuing events are less relatable (an air force train derailment they are witness to turns into a military conspiracy when the army move in to secure the cargo), but the mood and atmosphere Abrams has captured here is very much grounded in something altogether more tangible. Key to achieving this is the cast.
The central kids, a mix of comparative screen veterans and fresh-faced newcomers, are all particularly good, but it’s Joel Courtney and Elle Fanning who really shine. Courtney as lead character Joe manages to channel all the wonder and awe of the big dramatic set pieces, but also captures a believable sensitivity in the film’s quieter moments. He is perfectly complemented by Fanning, who quite brilliantly knocks everyone’s socks off in her standout scene. The supporting adult cast is fine too, filled with “Hey, it’s that guy from… (insert TV show/small role in big film here)”.
It’s a credit to their abilities that the most memorable moments are the human ones, rather than the explosions and gun battles. Or perhaps it reveals the film’s major flaw in that ultimately Super 8 largely boils down to a fairly standard monster movie with a rather boring creature. Sure, films tend to rely on a narrative drive, a macguffin, something to get character A to point B in order to find something C. But while it is most likely the case no-one would have bothered to see this film unless there was the promise of a big gribbly at the end of it, the tensions and relationships between the characters outside of the underlying mystery would have sufficed, and perhaps, made for a better film. It’s where the similarly themed and very likeable Son of Rambow succeeded and Super 8 surprisingly falters. It doesn’t completely undermine the good work elsewhere, it’s just a bit of a bore when the film’s in monster mode.
Taken specifically as a homage to Spielberg or no, Super 8 is an affectionate and enjoyable piece of good honest old-fashioned entertainment, buoyed more by the excellent performances than it is action and spectacle. It’s the cinematic equivalent of climbing trees and playing in the mud, compared to more recent popcorn fare being akin to staying in all day and playing video games, making it oddly refreshing, despite its preoccupation with the past.