Back in the 1980s, Stephen Spielberg cornered the market on the type of family-oriented adventure films that were once the preserve of Disney
Back in the 1980s, Stephen Spielberg cornered the market on the type of family-oriented adventure films that were once the preserve of Disney in the US and the Children’s Film Foundation in the UK; films about normal children leading normal lives until something fantastical happens to disrupt them. Think of films like E.T. and The Goonies and you’ll have a pretty good idea of the type of thing that is on offer. Fast-forward 25 years and the kids who grew up watching those types of films are now Hollywood big shots, big shots like producer/writer/director extraordinaire J.J. Abrams of Lost, Alias and Star Trek fame. Super 8 is both a cinematic homage to the films that first inspired Abrams’ love of movies and an attempt to recapture some of the magic that made those films so memorable for an entire generation of film lovers.
Like most films of this kind, Super 8 has a double narrative. Firstly, it is a story about a bunch of kids trying to prevent their families from dying in the crossfire of a battle between the US military and an escaped alien. Secondly, it is a coming-of-age story about a group of people getting over the death of a loved one and entering a new period of their lives. Again, as with most films of this type, the fantastical plotline serves as a catalyst for personal change by forcing the characters out of their comfort zones and into a happier place. However, much like Cloverfield’s take on the monster movie, Super 8’s take on the family adventure film is a glancingly post-modern affair that tries to augment a tried-and-tested genre formula with a commentary upon the transformative power of film right up until the moment when it is all about the transformative power of sodding great alien monsters. Mercifully, while this does mean that a number of plot strands are effectively abandoned half-way through, the film elements and the monster elements are both independently interesting enough that one is inclined to forgive the awkward change in emphasis.
Super 8 is a film whose individual elements work absolutely brilliantly. The scenes in which the train explodes and the military take the town are visual and sonic firestorms that rival anything produced by Michael Bay. Similarly, the budding relationship between Joe (Courtney) and Alice (Fanning) is genuinely moving in its innocence and complexity. Also impressive are the journeys undertaken by both Joe and his father Jackson (Chandler) from introspective underlings to take-charge leaders.
Unfortunately, while all of these themes and narratives work superbly on their own, they never quite manage to link up and feed into each other meaning that Super 8 is never more than the sum of its parts. The failure of the film’s various subplots to connect with each other is particularly noticeable in the film’s conclusion when what should have been a moment of heart-rending reconciliation falls completely flat because all of the journeys undertaken by the characters were undertaken alone. Indeed, when Joe meets up with his father, Jackson grabs his son and mutters “I’ve got you” but the whole point of the film is that Jackson didn’t ‘have’ Joe and so Joe had to go off and grow up all on his own!
Super 8 is a beautifully made film with moments of astonishing spectacle and real heart but a film this individualistic really has no right to trade on the values of friendship and togetherness for a big sentimental finish. Very nearly great.