THERE’S A SCENE IN J.J. Abrams’ merger of teenand monster movie where the flotsam and jetsam of a small town is pulled together, magnetised in one spot. Add a dash of magic, a secret ingredient, and the pile-up becomes something special. In a nutshell, that’s what Abrams wants to do with his third film as director.
Mission: Impossible III and Star Trek were ‘retro’ titles, true, but neither was as unabashedly indebted to pre-existing films as this: even if the Amblin logo didn’t join the Bad Robot sign to start, you’d soon guess what movie turf Abrams wanted to tease fresh magic from.
Super 8 doesn’t just recall Amblin-Spielberg films. It is an Amblin-Spielberg film. Why Abrams wanted to do it is a legitimate query, given that Spielberg has never lacked hero-worshippers. Only recently, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost stroked The Beard in Paul. Joe Cornish relocated Spielberg’s kids’n’critters schtick for Attack The Block.
All three served duty on The Adventures Of Tintin. Super 8 stood proudly singular among this summer’s blockbusters for not being tied to a big-name property or clear-cut genre. But it dilutes that distinction by treating the ‘Spielbergian’ as its own big-name genre. Yet Abrams adds what’s needed to deliver more than a high-grade fan-letter.
Yes, the story is old-school; a close encounter of a Goonies kind. Kids making a DIY zombie movie in steeltown Ohio, 1979, get more “production value” than expected after scoring footage of a train crash and its cargo. Cut from worn cloth, the gang includes the fat one, the shy one, the nutter you wouldn’t leave with fireworks... alternative title: Stand By Steve.
The road to Elle Crucially, though, Abrams cuts through cliché to coax the heart. The workplace death of FX boy Joe’s (Joel Courtney) mum starts the film with a swoon of sadness; the segue from the flickering light on the ‘Super 8’ title to the spitting sparks at the steel plant serves notice of the film’s swing between real-world pain and escapist fantasy.
Carefully poised between love and friendship, Joe’s bond with fellow one-parent kid Alice (Elle Fanning) is equally touching, especially during the scene in which she drops a devastating revelation in Joe’s bedroom… On the excellent, all-access extras, Abrams’ grin while shooting Fanning’s nailed-it performance here tells you how much intimacies like that count.
Cast-wise, the kids are better than all right. Abrams joke-mopes that his decision to cast newbies rather than “professional actor kids” entailed an “endless” casting process, but the choice pays off. The leads’ faces offer pure found “production values”, from Courtney’s innocent eyes to pyro-boy Ryan Lee’s gob, home to more metal than 10 train pile-ups.
More vitally still, their camaraderie crackles. Whether they’re bickering over food or goofing out to The Knack’s ‘My Sharona’, they seem caught on the hoof rather than directed, a point borne out by footage of them bonding on the featurettes.
Emotional dividends result: try watching Fanning and co-star Riley Griffiths blubbing on wrap day without your heart turning to yoghurt. But there’s the critter who fell to Earth to consider, which is where Super 8 stumbles.
Sure, the monster is solidly designed, if a bit Cloverfield 2. Abrams’ smart method of merging mystery with marketing campaigns continues on-screen, where we don’t see the beast for a while (lessons learned from Jurassic Park and Jaws), only the mes she leaves behind, like the most annoying flatmate.
Even when we do see him he’s tough to get a fix on, so odd are his split upper arms and insect-monkey-gralien physique. Personal effects But as the touching coming-of-age story gives way to alien-vs-army action, Abrams swerves awkwardly between scary-monster mayhem and emo-monster whimsy.
He wants to have his Cloverfield chaos and his E.T. wonderment too, but the two aren’t integrated and there isn’t enough quality kid-on-alien time for Joe’s face-to-face with the creature to wash emotionally.
The last stretch feels rushed: there’s running and screaming, then “oohs” and “aahs”, but the emotional and plot focus of the first half gets a bit lost as the soldiers blow up half of Ohio. But these are minor burps in an otherwise heartfelt hybrid of geek-love letter and loving storytelling.
Not just classic Spielberg mimicry, it gets him right: the fluid mix of overhead, contextualising crane shots and eye-to-eye emotional close-ups is pure ’Berg, as is Michael Giacchino’s heart-swelling score.
Like Cloverfield, it’s an example of spectacle cinema brought down to size, a celebration of old-school storytelling packing all the required new-school FX firepower. In that context, Super 8 feels personal despite Spielberg’s imprint.
The 8mm Revolution featurette reinforces a quasiautobiographical reading, with Abrams and his crew discussing how they cut their teeth making Super 8 pics. Be it Riley Griffiths’ tubby tyro Charles Kaznyk watching amazed as Alice turns fiction into feeling on the train platform, or Joe losing his mum then finding purpose among friends, Super 8 gazes in pain and wonder at the experiences that forge creative instincts.
When Abrams gets these magic moments in focus, his ‘homage’ soars on its own steam, a sweetly sentimental standalone from a franchise-filled summer.
A celebration of old-school storytelling packing all the required new-school FX firepower