Super 8

Super 8

***1/2

Reviewed by: Stephen Carty

For many film fans, the prospect of J J Abrams making a movie with Steven Spielberg (wearing his producer cap), which openly aims to recreate the spirit and wonder of the bearded one’s classic works, is exciting. It is also, in an increasingly soulless age of over-actioned, production line-churned blockbusters, a refreshing one, under the passionate eye of the perfect man for the job.

After all, in a way Abrams has been preparing for this all his career, having nabbed a job at the age of 15(!) with collaborating buddy Matt Reeves (who directed Cloverfield) to repair and re-cut Spielberg’s own 8mm home-made movies, after impressing at a film festival. Fast-forward to today, where the adept pupil finally works alongside his teacher and idol in an ironic twist of fate, with the noble intention of re-educating the cinematic masses.

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And, for fans of the master, the good news is that the end result, somewhat unsurprisingly, is as close to golden era ‘Berg as possible.

It’s 1979 in a small industrial town in Ohio, and 13-year-old Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) is struggling with the death of his mother. Living with his devastated father Jackson (Kyle Chandler), also the local Deputy Sheriff, Joe channels his energy into helping his friends make a zombie movie with a Super 8 camera for a competition. Sneaking out to shoot a night scene, these pre-teens witness a passing military train derail, before something emerges from the wreckage.

At times a pitch-perfect impression-come-homage, movie fans will find the affectionate tribute to Spielbergia unmistakable, with the whole experience proudly informed by Steven’s nostalgic sensibilities and recurring themes.

Single-parent families, alien visitors, bright lights, dogs, the obstructive authorities selling a cover up; the check-list could go, with several moments harking back to Spielberg's seminal work. Boys cycling around a slopey, valley-set small-town offers obvious visual cues to E.T., both the behind-bush rumblings and bus attack might stir T-Rex memories from Jurassic Park, while the creature being handled with the usual JJ preference for the largely-unseen approach, originates from Jaws.

But while the influence of the Beard hangs like an unashamed blueprint, this is also a personal project for Abrams. Aside from his own recurring motifs (mysterious cubes, Daddy issues, the lens flare, a de-facto hero named Jack), Super 8 is a semi-autobiographical love letter to his own childhood as a junior filmmaker. Like Spielberg, cine-literate disciple Abrams was a keen junior creator of homemade movies, and it’s this angle which sings with fannish detail, reminiscent of Kevin Williamson’s superior first few, pre-sell-out years of Dawson’s Creek.

The bad news though, is that while it’s a strong movie, the positives are brought down by an ever-present splinter of quiet disappointment. More like a reverential throwback to past classics than a classic in its own right, Super 8 is simultaneously inspired by its influences yet unable to transcend them for something unique. Make no mistake, it’s refreshingly heartfelt and story-based (modern directors – take note), but frustratingly never quite as jaw-dropping or memorable as you hoped. It teeters on the edge of magic, but never gets there. It’s occasionally thrilling but never consistently gripping.

Partly, this is due to its bi-part origins. No doubt, the idea of Cloverfield meets The Goonies - by way of Close Encounters Of The Third Kind - is a tantalising one, but these parts never gel into an organic whole. Originally, writer-director JJ was working on both a teen filmmaking yarn and a thriller about an alien being transported from Area 51 as separate projects, before deciding to combine them. Now, it’s not that either element doesn’t work, it’s more that it feels like we’re occasionally watching two non-identical pictures transplanted together. One a wondrous, Spielbergian coming-of-age drama, the other a dark-tinged sci-fi thriller.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with trying to emulate Spielberg (after all, who better?), but Abrams’ talent and flair lies in being, well, Abrams. From the techno-pumping antics of Alias to the attention-grabbing disaster of Lost's opening two-parter (which he helmed), from the underrated Mission: Impossible III to the triumphant Star Trek reboot, he’s a man who excels at high-octane, pulse-quickening thrills, while crafting an over-arching sense of mystery. The train wreck presented here and its explosive aftermath, for example, is pure Jeffrey Jacobs – a breathtaking yet utterly credible realisation of adrenalin-rushing catastrophe to rival the Lostie’s beach calamity following Oceanic 815’s splashdown. And the mysterious alien undercurrent, while hardly a revelation, adds an undoubted flavour of the extraordinary.

Abrams is also a man who places just as much deserved importance on story and character but the emotional arc resolutions don’t quite satisfy come the final whistle. With the third act taking a few uncharacteristic short-cuts to pull everything together, some character journeys don’t match Michael Giacchino’s beautiful score for poignancy, one stunningly-beautiful necklace moment notwithstanding. As for the creature, though wisely obscured and hidden for the most of the picture, you kinda wish it’d stayed unseen entirely (what you imagine is always more terrifying than any reality), while its motivations are fairly hazy.

No complaints about the cast though, with Courtney’s mop-haired protagonist and Ellie Fanning’s older girl love-interest the stand-outs from an unknown and naturalistic bunch. Adult-wise, Chandler puts his Friday Night Lights’ respected small-town figure to good use and nails every father-son beat, while recognisable character actor Ron Eldard is great casing as a man involved in the Lamb’s tragedy.

As close to classic era Spielberg as you’re going to get and a refreshing slice of human storytelling in amongst today’s never-ending stream of soulless blockbusters, but Super 8 doesn’t quite achieve the greatness you hope for.

Reviewed on: 26 Aug 2011
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A train-wreck leads to an encroaching mystery.
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