A hint of nostalgia and a hugely fun monster romp from the ever-secretive JJ Abrams.
They don’t make them like they used to is a term thrown around by critics and nostalgic revelers all too often, but it’s true. Blockbuster summer movies these days are all about CGI bangs, broad-stroked stereotype characters and enough gimmickry to make any audience forget about a lack of plot and simply enjoy the ride. We’re looking at you Michael Bay. Gone are the days when a hit movie needed have character, story and set-pieces to marvel at.
There is only one man who can still pull it off and that’s Steven Spielberg. Or so we thought, step forward JJ Abrams. Aided by Mr. Spielberg himself, on producer duties. For what Messrs Spielberg and Abrams have concocted withSuper 8 is a delightful hark back to the films that defined and shaped your movie going passion. Think Back To The Future (1985), Star Wars (1977),Jaws (1975) and most importantly E.T. (1982) because there is more than just a hint of Amblin Entertainment, Spielberg’s production company emblazoned on the brain due to its E.T image, to Super 8.
In the summer of 1979 a group of kids are in the process of filming their very own Super 8 zombie movie. Charles (Riley Griffith) is the demanding director, Alice (Elle Fanning) the budding actress and Joe (Joel Courtney) the put upon but reliable make-up/producer of this childhood masterpiece. One night the crew slip out and shoot an all-important scene at the local train station of their little town. There they witness, and accidentally film, a colossal train crash. As the military descend and people go missing Joe’s father, and town sheriff, Jackson (Kyle Chandler) tries to figure out what the big secret it. But the kids have beaten him to the punch and head out as all hell breaks loose to discover what was hiding in that military branded train.
Kids, you say, facing off against the might of the US military, looking for something alien in nature? What is this Transformers (2007)? No, far from it. For every piece of vacuous nonsense that big robots throw at us Super 8 counters it with heart and friendship the likes of which make cinema great. The story goes that JJ Abrams had two story ideas. One, after the success of Cloverfield which he produced, was about a small town under attack from an alien. The other was a look back at his childhood of shooting Super 8 movies with his friends over long summers. One had huge plot potential with no characters, the other great characters with no plot. Considering Abrams is the man who created Lost it seems so obvious now that the two should mesh together in such wonderful harmony.
Abrams finds a perfect balance between coming of age drama and monster movie all the while hinting at that tent pole of Spielberg themes of absent fathers. Think Stand By Me (1986) mixed with E.T. and a hint of small town being terrorized by a monster in the vein of Jaws and you have a receipt of delights.
Abrams has always known how to create intrigue, ask any Lost or Alias fan, but more importantly he is able to create and utilise warm and affectionate characters to inhabit his worlds. This is a man who took the old Star Trek (2009) staples and injected them with something fresh. Super 8 does just that for the big budget movie. There is spectacle, the train crash alone is a stand out moment of cinema in 2011, romance between the innocent Joe and Alice and tension as the military herd the town up to quarantine the menace at large.
The 70s setting makes for a wonderful sense of nostalgia that your inner child cannot help but acquiesce with. No mobile phones, no internet and no Playstation. These kids are out living life and when they’re not they’re painting Star Wars models and testing fireworks as make-shift special effects. Super 8 is as much a love-letter to childhood innocence as it is Amblin Entertainment homage.
Perhaps crucial to the film’s success is the young actors cast to make all this believable. Elle Fanning has for a while now been usurping her talented older sister Dakota. Here she brings a heartbreaking ethereal yet damaged quality to Alice. Griffith manages to find levels of egomaniacal madness you wonder if he wasn’t a director in a former life, he is an unstoppable force when it comes to finishing his films, even if it means blowing up his best friend’s models. But it is Joel Courtney who truly carries the film. His doe-eyed gaze accompanied by his wiser than his age delivery posses all the quality of a leading man much his senior. If there is a weak part of the film it is when the script focuses on the less interesting adults and leaves the kids to run amok. Thankfully these moments are few and far between.
Super 8 is a rare film in a year littered with below average big-budget remakes, sequels and franchise hokum. It is a film that will appeal to all audiences for very specific reasons. The older viewer will reminisce in its simpler time B-movie brilliance, the younger in it’s delicate and honest perspective, while the teens will thrive in the spectacle on offer. Dig out the 8 Track Tape, rewind the VCR and phone home because Super 8 is the true hero of this year’s big budget offerings.