Cineworld Glasgow, 05.08.11
What’s this oddity arriving in cinema in this summer of 2011? It’s a summer Hollywood film, but it’s not based on a comic book superhero, it’s not a sequel, (nor is it franchise-friendly opener), it doesn’t star any big names, and it’s not a remake of a European or Asian hit, it’s not in 3D, it’s not even a literary adaptation. Which isn’t to say J.J. Abrams’ Super 8 is an original film, or that it takes any risks, given that it steals liberally from the nostalgic films of the early- to-mid-1980’s, and has the heavyweight names of its director and producer (one Steven Spielberg) to sell it to the public, but in the sequel-heavy, safe-profit driven world of blockbusters, it’s as close to an original story as big-budget Hollywood entertainment seems to want to get this year, and as such is a breath of fresh air.
J.J. Abrams is held as one of Hollywood’s bright new talents, but in truth his track record is patchy at best: I gave up on Lost (2004-10) after a handful of episodes, and despite its cult following, still suspect it wasn’t that good in comparison to the best of US television; he produced Cloverfield (2008, Matt Reeves), one of the worst films of the last few years, but a hit nonetheless; his Mission Impossible III (2006) was solid if not spectacular, whereas his reinvention of Star Trek (2009) was a definite success. One thing that is certain is that Abrams is smart, and knows his film and television history, along with the likes of Bryan Singer before him, he has been brought up on film, and knows how to make a stylish movie that will attract a loyal audience.
Super 8 is derivative of, or an homage to (depending on your point of view), so many films from the mid-1980’s, and recalls the America that Spielberg grew up in and recreated in his best, early work. A group of school kids in small town America (here, the fictional town of Lillian) are making their own zombie film on a Super 8 camera. There’s Joe Lamb (Joel Courteney), still mourning his deceased mom and struggling to get along with his Father; his lifelong friend and film director, Charles (Riley Griffiths); Alice (Ellie Fanning) the object of their affection; dim Martin (Gabriel Brasso); geek Preston (Zach Mills) and explosives expert, Cary (Ryan Lee). While out filming one night they witness a train crash and the resulting escape of an extra-terrestrial from one of the carriages. Soon, strange and unexplained occurrences start plaguing the town, people and objects disappear, the electricity supply is cut off, and the US Air Force are hiding the truth. It’s left to the kids to track down the alien and save the townsfolk from disaster.
It recalls the cult films of the ’80’s based around young kids in small town America, reaching adolescence and embarking on adventures armed with walkie-talkie radios and bicycles. Think of The Goonies (Richard Donner, 1985), E.T. (Steven Spielberg, 1982), and Stand By Me (Rob Reiner, 1986), mix them all together and you have all the elements of Super 8 – the bond of a group of male school friends, the dawning of sexual awakening, the dysfunctional families and absent or struggling parents, adults unable to cope with emotions as well as their offspring, extra-terrestrials, and the adventurous spirit of youth in an age before computers, the internet and mobile phones stole the innocence of pre-teen youths. And it is in its recreation and representation of these elements that Abrams film excels. The camaraderie of the group of friends, the genuine warmth between them, the family issues they face together and the sense of youthful adventure are perfectly presented, and the young cast of unknowns are uniformly excellent in their roles. Joel Courteney channels Henry Thomas from E.T., this time with a missing mother instead of a missing father, and convinces as the young teen committed to his friends and falling for Alice (an excellent Fanning). The rest of the young leads are equally engaging with plenty of funny lines and a sense of genuine friendship and fun. The mix of generic archetypes in the group of friends – the overweight one, the scared one, the geek – can be overlooked as they represent a breath of fresh air next to the string of precocious brats normally served up in Hollywood cinema. The unassuming performances at the heart of the film provide a core that allows one to forgive criticisms elsewhere in the film.
Abrams has revealed that the film was created from two separate ideas – one the story of the young kids making their own movie, the other from his sci-fi background in the story of the alien crash landing on earth and trying to rebuild its spacecraft and return home. As much as the kids storyline riffs on Spielberg’s early kid-centric output successfully, so the alien side of the film lets the film down. The alien, exactly like E.T., just wants to return home. The difference is, that unlike the benign E.T., Abrams alien is a descendant of his Cloverfield creation – a malevolent, ugly beast, killing humans for food and destroying the town in order to escape. It leads to a streak of nastiness that sits ill at ease with the rest of the good-natured film. There’s a lot of blood and violence that feels misplaced, and one wishes Abrams could have shown more restraint. There’s simply no need for the excess level of gore. The same criticism can be applied to the over the top level of explosions, which feel like a misguided attempt to match the expected noise and bombast of Hollywood summer action films, but feel quite different from the film they appear in – the scenes of the Army destroying the town of Lillian in an attempt to kill the alien feel like they belong more in Spielberg’s other loud action monstrosity of the summer Transformers: Dark of the Moon (Michael Bay, 2011), than in a story centered on teenage friendship and adventure. Similarly, the train crash that sets the alien free is bizarrely over the top, and needlessly so. And, while most of the representation of mid-80’s life is accurately observed, there is some heavy-handed, though admittedly funny, humour in details such as the novelty of the Sony Walkman (“it’s a slippery slope” comments the town’s aging Sheriff), that could have been carried off much more subtly.
In the end though, the excesses can be forgiven because in recreating the era of Spielberg’s better films and childhood innocence, Abrams creates a genuinely feel good film, with central characters that can be cared about, and that manage to overcome the CGI excesses and violent action that dominate Hollywood cinema. It’s telling that Spielberg is the producer on a film that recalls his earlier work so tellingly, and reminds us that, like Hollywood itself, twenty years ago he knew how to make great entertainment with genuine soul. Perhaps on seeing this, he will be tempted to rediscover his lost innocence too. One feels it’s important that Super 8 does good business at the box office to try to encourage the Hollywood studios to at least have faith in making more original product instead of the over reliance on sequels and superheros.
Film Rating: 4 out of 5.