Cast: Joel Courtney, Kyle Chandler, Elle Fanning, Riley Griffiths, Ryan Lee, Ron Eldard ~ Writer: J.J. Abrams ~ Director: J.J. Abrams
Reviewer: Jehan Ranasinghe (aka @Maustallica)
The Low-Down: A sincere and studious tribute to the glory years of Steven Spielberg, Super 8 doesn’t quite follow through on its ambitions with all the conviction it might have done, but possesses more than enough genuine heart and craft to be worthy of praise and attention.
What’s it About?: The year is 1979, and sensitive 14-year-old Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) is about to embark on a summer-long project to film an amateur zombie movie with his friends, while also coping with the emotional fallout of his mother’s recent death. When sneaking out one night to shoot a key scene, Joe and friends witness a huge train crash in extremely dubious circumstances, an incident followed by strange incidents and disappearances in the local area. Slowly, they begin to suspect that the train was carrying something – something that is now loose in their small Ohio hometown…
The Story: (WARNING: This review will contain some spoilerish details, so those desperate to preserve a sense of complete mystery may wish to tread carefully…)
A funny thing has happened to the 1980s. Previously regarded as “that embarrassing period that definitely happened, but we don’t like to talk about”, the decade appears to have been oddly reassessed in the last few years as a cultural golden age, to be revered and plundered for its bountiful treasures. ThunderCats is back on TV; Transformers and Conan the Barbarian are playing in cinemas; coming soon to screens near you are Fright Night, The Thing and Dallas. Cultural fashions are cyclical, sure, but it’s hard to dispel the image of Hollywood cannibalising itself when bloody Short Circuit is getting hauled out of storage for another go-around.
Yet Super 8, the third feature from director JJ Abrams, has always felt a little different. After catching our attention with last year’s mysterious trainwreck teaser clip, the filmmaker has tantalised us with the promise of a true genre piece that aims to capture the very best elements of 1980s adventure cinema, while injecting a healthy dose of modern edge and savvier sensibilities. Abrams’ intent is to create a genuine peer to the likes of ET: The Extra-Terrestrial or The Goonies, tapping into the themes and values that defined that era’s outlook, rather than simply relying on its brands and cultural touchstones as a nostalgic crutch. Seeing the finished film, it’s fair to say that he hasn’t entirely succeeded in meeting his ambitious goals, but the effort is accomplished and never anything less than interesting.
Inevitably, it’s difficult to even begin discussing any element of Super 8 without first addressing one particular bearded, Oscar-winning elephant in the room. In tackling this particular genre and era, Abrams was always going to be operating in the shadow of Steven Spielberg, the undisputed master of this domain; by handing the father of Amblin Entertainment a producer role, the director shows that he’s perfectly willing to lie back and enjoy the shade. Abrams wanted to make a genuine Amblin adventure film, and he’s chosen to do so by following Spielberg’s route map right down to the millimetre; so complete and overt is his adoption of the Bearded One’s style, themes and storytelling language (the ET-mimicking storyline, small-town vibe, themes of parental loss and coming of age, etc) that pointing it out feels akin to stating that the sky is blue.
It would have been easy for a film following a preset template this closely to come across as lifeless, but Super 8 feels like the work of a director who understands the nuts and bolts of the theory he’s putting into practice, rather than simply following it by rote. Any old hack can cobble together some period costumes and hash out the basics of a kids-discover-aliens plot, but it takes more skill to create an atmosphere that nostalgically venerates the wistful feel of the turn of the Eighties – an ambiguous era characterised by its own nostalgia for the decades preceding it – while also infusing that sense of doe-eyed, dreamy, naive wonder that Spielberg seems to have copyrighted. More impressively, Abrams has also been able to add his own flavour to the familiar blend, most prominently in terms of the film’s central mystery element, which allows the Lost creator to bring his affinity for tension-building, creeping menace and misdirection to the fore.
The fruits of the Abrams/Spielberg alliance brought to bear most prominently in the young principle cast, a delightful collection of misfits that combine amusing snarkiness, youthful haplessness, precocious wisdom and tangible innocence in a massively watchable blend. Adult cast members such as Kyle Chandler and Ron Eldard turn in decent supporting performances, but can’t compete with the scene-stealing likes of Riley Griffiths’ bumptious amateur director Charles or Ryan Lee’s pint-sized pyromaniac Cary. However, it’s the sensitive central pairing of Joel Courtney’s Joe and Elle Fanning’s Alice that prove themselves to be Super 8’s key assets, their budding relationship and shared parental issues giving the film its heart and grounding, even in the face of massive setpieces such as the spectacular pivotal train crash.
The merits of Super 8 are a testament to Abrams’ development as a feature director, offering a more substantial and solidly-founded experience than either Mission: Impossible III or the 2009 Star Trek. Yet conceptualisation and vision is nothing without conclusion, and sadly it’s in this area that Abrams shows he still has some growing left to do. For two-thirds of its running time, Super 8 is a self-confident, disciplined genre piece, but as soon as the film transitions into its third act, something within its internal structure seems to snap. The well-etched characters begin to make decisions based on narrative necessity, rather than convincing motivation; magic and discovery begin to be replaced by loud pyrotechnics; most fatally, the clouds of obfuscation surrounding the core mystery dissipate, revealing something far more conventional and infinitely less interesting than the build-up suggested.
It’s at this point that detractors let down by the payoffs of Abrams projects such as Lost and Cloverfield will get their shots in, but even a sympathetic observer would find it hard to argue that Super 8’s destination lives up to its journey. It’s not just that the creature lurking at the heart of the film’s web of intrigue is a confused creation, staggering back and forth over the line between sympathetic and threatening; it’s the fact that this underwhelming narrative deadweight displaces so many superior elements, most vexingly including the story of Joe and Alice, whose separation in the final act removes much of the interpersonal interest that fuelled the rest of the film. Abrams is able to pull things back on course at the very end with an unsubtle but effectively Close Encounters-ish finale and a fabulous credits sequence (in which we get to see a completed version of the kids’ zombie film), but the prevailing feeling is that the director stumbles over the finish line, after running most of the race at an easy canter.
The inability to stick the landing registers as a great shame for Super 8, if only because what precedes it is good enough to suggest that Abrams and co did possess the talent to see this idea through to a more fitting conclusion. But it shouldn’t overshadow the accomplishments of a film that shows guts by intentionally placing itself in direct, unavoidable comparison with classics of its chosen genre and, for the majority of its duration, withstanding those comparisons with a decent amount of flair. For all its flaws, Super 8 stands as one of the most artistically interesting products of the current 1980s revival trend, and suggests that JJ Abrams could have a genuinely great film in him somewhere down the line. As long as he keeps taking lessons from the very best, he may well get there.
The Verdict: The most authentic 1980s Spielberg movie ever to not be directed by Steven Spielberg, Super 8 falters in the final stretch, but its praiseworthy ambition, winning cast and exemplary craftsmanship ultimately make JJ Abrams’ best film so far a difficult one to begrudge.