There was a time, back in the late ’70s and early ’80s, when blockbusters had heart and soul to go with their balls, when the testosterone and the money shots were duly arrived at after periods of intimacy.
Super 8, the old charmer, returns to such innocent times, assuredly delivering bang for buck but – first and foremost – respecting old-fashioned concepts like, y’know, character, emotion, storytelling…
Super 8’s creator is, of course, Jeffrey Jacob Abrams, or plain old JJ to the millions of people who think of him warmly after Mission: Impossible III, Star Trek, Cloverfield and Lost.
This is his “personal project”, much as E.T. was Steven Spielberg’s, who here co-produces.
Set in 1979, when JJ, aged 13, was holed up in his cluttered bedroom making models to blow up on film, Super 8 tells of movie-obsessed Charles (Riley Griffiths) and best friend Joe (Joel Courtney), the leaders of a group of pre-teen kids who run about town shooting a zombie epic on an Emuig Super 8 camera.
Sneaking from their beds to film a night scene at the local train station, they continue to roll as a US Air Force freight charges past (“Production values!”) and crashes explosively.
Then things get really weird. Generators and car engines burn out, power cables and microwaves disappear. The town’s dogs hightail it to neighbouring counties.
And the military roll in under the stern command of Colonel Nelec (Noah Emmerich), a man who dost protest too much when questioned by Deputy Lamb (Kyle Chandler), AKA Joe’s dad: “If you’re asking me if we had any dangerous property on board this train,” glowers Nelec, “I can assure you the answer is no.”
If Super 8 is JJ’s own childhood spliced with a rambunctious monster movie, it is inevitable it should look and feel like an early Spielberg picture, for Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, E.T., Poltergeist, Gremlins, The Goonies and Back To The Future shaped a generation.
The film’s overrun setting, a small Ohio town, population 11,200, is pure Spielburbia – acknowledged by the E.T.-doffing shot of the twinkling burg spread out below, a beacon to attract the trouble that’s arrived in the night.
The kids’ bedrooms, like Elliott’s, are jumbled dens, and the town’s rolling topography, all slopes and ridges, recalls E.T.’s famous bike chase while allowing Super 8’s climactic, panoramic action to play out at various vertical and horizontal depths without recourse to crane shots or focus pulls.
Like Spielberg, Abrams has an eye for awe, his deft orchestration of indelible images – a tank trundling through a children’s playground, a plot-pivotal landmark framed in the distance through a small hole in a bedroom wall – marking him as a born storyteller.
He’s no slouch when it comes to suspense either, and it’s this skill as much as the kids’ goofing that marks the film’s first half, when the creature remains cloaked, as the superior segment.
Standout sequence? A classic bit of shadow play involving a gas station, a teen attendant listening to Blondie’s ‘Heart Of Glass’ on his Walkman, a cop filling his cruiser to the plaintive ting-ting-ting of the gas pump, some rustling treetops and, finally, an out-of-focus attack.
If the monster-reveal to come and the increasingly close-up close-ups that follow never quite match the early frisson generated by shooting empty spaces filled with the viewers’ imagination, then it is, perhaps, inevitable.
JJ’s monster is a good ’un, perhaps too good given its 2011 CGI threatens to jar in a movie that’s not just set in 1979 but could, for the most part, have been made in 1979.
But it’s no match for the Alien Queen or The Thing. Or, indeed, the amorphous terrors of Lost and Cloverfield.
The kids, mind, are faultless. Unlike the silicon-soul LA brats who inhabit most modern movies (though Elle Fanning, terrific as the cool older girl who Joe and Charles moon over, is exactly that), this terrific troupe recall not just early Spielberg but ’80s favourites Stand By Me and The Monster Squad.
It’s there in the gap-toothed grins, fleshy frames, oversized spectacles and bowl haircuts, and it’s there also in the insouciant banter spiked with colourful lingo (“Holy shit, that’s mint!”; “Dude, that’s bitchin’!”; “This is insane!”).
Maybe the kids feel real because JJ had friends just like them, or maybe it’s because they’re borrowed from movies where they felt real the first time round, and are here presented with sincerity.
Whatever the reason, they’re a riot to hang out with, and their heartache – Joe’s mom has just died, all of them are outsiders – feels genuine, though it never wrenches like Elliott’s absent father or Gordie LaChance’s dead older brother.
Too much thick-throated emotion is stirred into the wondrous, mawkish finale.
The blend of sentiment and spectacle here evokes Spielberg at his worst as well as his best, and the film’s subtext is heavily underlined in case we missed it.
But even this bum note at the end of a too-frantic third act won’t stop Super 8 from being, hands down, the film of the summer.
Only a young Spielberg at the top of his game could beat it.
A monster mash-up of '50s sci-fi, late-'70s / early '80s event movie and autobiography, Super 8 doesn’t possess the top-to-bottom greatness of the films it’s modelled on but, in shooting for the stars, leaves 90% of modern blockbusters in the gutter. Mint.