Super 8 Review
The bespectacled Hollywood powerhouses of Steven Spielberg and J.J. Abrams join forces for Super 8, an affectionate tribute to both the technology that the budding filmmakers grew up with and Spielberg’s own particular brand of cinematic escapism. But though it’s an impressive looking adventure which makes full use of special effects that a 1970s filmmaker could only have dreamed of, it can’t quite escape the gravitational pull of its inspirations. It feels like the movie Spielberg’s spotty younger brother might have directed circa 1980. But Abrams knows how to deliver good-looking sci-fi, and there’s enough to enjoy here even if it doesn’t come close to matching the best of Spielberg’s offerings.
It’s 1979 and a group of Ohio school kids who in their spare time shoot their own movies accidentally film a terrifying train crash on the edge of their town. Onboard the train is an extremely lethal passenger not of this world, and it leaves a trail of destruction after it escapes. As the town’s residents start to mysteriously disappear and the army moves in to recapture the creature, the opportunity to shoot a film against this backdrop, making the most of the free special effects show that has arrived on their doorstep, proves irresistible. But when their star actress Alice (Elle Fanning) is captured by the escapee, the gang, led by Joe (Joel Courtney) and Charles (Riley Griffiths), set out to rescue her.
For those of a certain age, Super 8 will likely bring back memories of visiting the local fleapit armed with a warm can of coke and a tub of popcorn that wasn’t the size of a family saloon. The old saying goes that nostalgia isn’t what it used to be, but Super 8 seriously begs to differ. This is 24 carat, diamond-encrusted nostalgia. All the ingredients of an early Amblin blockbuster are present and correct: the quiet suburban setting, the blue collar homes made up of slightly unruly children and absent parents, an extraordinary and fantastical intervention which sets our hero(es) off on a journey to come of age/change their lives for the better (delete as applicable), the ineffectual blundering of government and the military – all are duly ticked off, complete with a John Williams-esque score supplied by Abrams regular Michael Giacchino. The question is, does Super 8 have anything more to offer than just simple nostalgia?
Well, yes and no. It has a good deal of action, including the spectacular and ludicrously over-the-top train crash which sets the story in motion. Some of it works well (a bus coming under attack being a highlight), some of it doesn’t (the army’s climactic rampage across the town in search of the creature smacks of special effects overkill, favouring noise above all else). Fortunately the film-making buddies at the centre of the story are genuinely interesting and likeable. It’s during these quieter moments as the young proto-nerds try to make their curious hybrid film noir/zombie horror project that Super 8 comes genuinely close to resurrecting the spirit of 80s Spielberg. As the group squabble, pull together, and even take the first tentative steps towards romance, it can legitimately lay claim to being as good as second tier Amblin entertainment along the lines of, say, The Goonies (though it ain’t no Gremlins).
But setting the film in 1979 feels like a cop out. By making it a period piece and fitting it out with the trappings of Spielberg, Abrams does two things. Firstly, he openly invites comparisons with the work of the big man himself - and the comparisons simply don’t go in Super 8’s favour. Secondly, he aims the film squarely at the generation that grew up under the influence of the bearded wonder. In doing so he does himself a disservice: it wouldn’t have taken much to tweak the script and aim it at today’s kids, giving them some original (well, reasonably original) cinematic entertainment instead of Hollywood’s preferred diet of sequels and glorified toy adverts, and in the process becoming Sir Steven’s heir apparent. But never mind; Super 8 is still good clean fun, even if it lacks the master’s sure touch.