|Image: Paramount Pictures|
JJ Abrams is one of the most important and influential figures in sci-fi today. With Super 8, he’s brought us a nostalgic monster movie produced by Steven Spielberg. Can it be as impressive as it sounds?
It’s 1979 in a small town in Ohio. 13-year-old Joe (Joel Courtney) is helping his friend Charles (Riley Griffiths) make a Super 8 zombie movie. While on location with their friends one night they witness an explosive train crash. Something has escaped from the wreckage and the military move in to contain the threat.
From the Amblin logo onwards it’s impossible to ignore the Spielberg influence on this film. Happily, Abrams is paying homage to some of the best of the master’s back catalogue. Super 8 is essentially a big love-letter to E.T., with a bit of Jurassic Park thrown in for good measure. It doesn’t match these films, but it’s certainly good enough to stand on its own monstrous extraterrestrial feet.
One of the lessons that Abrams has learned from the early Spielberg classics is the importance of the characters’ relationships. At times it’s easy to forget that there’s a sci-fi element to Super 8. It is, above all else, a story about a boy who is overcoming grief and falling for a girl who has a similarly complicated home life. The patented Spielberg damaged families are present and correct, as Joe and his police deputy dad Jackson (Kyle Chandler) communicate as little as possible, both emotionally wounded by the death of Joe’s mother. Meanwhile, Alice (Elle Fanning) has to cope with her drunken deadbeat dad Louis (Ron Eldard) who is somehow connected to Joe’s mother’s death.
Abrams also shows a movie geek’s love of movies. The glimpses of Charles’ film are wonderfully believable and earnest. Charles screams “Production value!”, star Martin moans about new pages, and Joe first gets close to Alice when applying her make-up. It’s at this stage that we get the spectacular train crash which sets the larger plot in motion. These action sequences are surprisingly infrequent; it’s nice to see a film that knows the importance of a good lull. That being said, it’s during these lulls that the story’s shortfalls and lack of a real plot become apparent. But the set pieces themselves are expertly done. There is a great, unpredictable mix of slow build and sudden shocks, with a sequence on a bus the nerve-shredding standout.
Vitally, the performances from the child cast are superb, with Courtney and Fanning (Somewhere) the standouts. While there are no stars, there are familiar faces in the adult cast. There are solid turns from Chandler (Friday Night Lights), Eldard (Black Hawk Down), and Noah Emmerich (The Walking Dead) who plays a sinister Air Force Colonel.
It’s certainly enjoyable all the way through, with thrilling sequences and moments of great tenderness. But things noticeably slow down at the 60 minute mark as Abrams seems to be unsure of how to fill the time before the climax. Story-wise, the film is very predictable as he refuses to veer from the beaten track. However, Super 8 does kick back into gear with a nail-biting build towards a slightly unsatisfactory ending.
Verdict: It may not be the great meeting of minds that sci-fi fans were hoping for, but with great performances and a lot of heart, Super 8 is, for the most part, an immensely entertaining love-letter to the finest work of one of the industry’s best.