Before I start, I’ll make a point to explain what films Super 8 channels, therefore proving that, now and again, they do make them like they used to. This movie very much harks back to the whimsical Hollywood kid/family movies of the late 70’s and 1980’s. Super 8 aims to recapture the emotional beats of those sort of movies that you wanted to be in, the giddy adventurous heights of The Goonies, the genuine sense of friendship achieved in Rob Reiner’s classic coming-of-age tale Stand By Me, and also, of course, this is a movie dedicated to the works and stylings of a one Mr. Steven Spielberg. His stamp was certainly on the likes of The Goonies, and its his Sci-fi classics, particularly E.T. and Close Encounters, to which Super 8 owes a lot to. I am all for movies paying tribute to classics of a genre, and particularly movies I love (these kind of 80’s movies have an undeniable charm to them that has been lost from many Hollywood movies over recent years). But I was worried that Super 8 would get bogged down with all its intentions of paying respect to the Beard and movies past. But thank God, J.J. Abrams’ knows how to keep a movie on the rails, ironically. What a movie needs is heart, and this has plenty to spare.
The plot of the movie very much exudes a Stand By Me vibe, which I found was very strong, something I wasn’t really expecting. The year is 1979, and young Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) has recently lost his Mum in a tragic accident, and his relationship with his father (Kyle Chandler) is far from healthy (wouldn’t be a Spielberg-esque movie if there wasn’t a parental problem). Joe plans to spend his summer helping his friend Charles (a Chunk-channeling Riley Griffiths) film a zombie movie. Not that I’ve ever done that. One night whilst filming a pivotal scene, the group of friends, including Joe’s crush Alice (Elle Fanning), witness a disastrous train crash, catching its mysterious cargo on their Super 8 camera. Soon enough, military men are taking over their small hometown, with suspicious happenings taking place, leading the kids to take it upon themselves to investigate the unexplainable events.
The first half hour of the movie or so does an absolutely amazing job of establishing the setting and presenting us with these characters. The camaraderie between the group of friends is one of the most natural on-screen since, heck I’ll say it, Stand By Me. It’s what grounds the movie in reality once the sci-fi action begins, mostly because it feels so natural and is tremendously witty. It’s probably true to say every one of us has had friends like these in the past, and maybe even the present (particularly if you yourself has made a zombie film lately). The kids all have their own personalities and the acting is incredibly impressive. Joel Courtney is unbelievable as Joe, conveying the confusion a kid would have from losing their Mum so tragically and having to cope with a father who has trouble finding the time for him. He is the character who guides us through when things become out of the ordinary. We also take his journey with him, as he discovers himself and finally comes to terms with the loss in his life. And all it took once a little alien infestation. Elle Fanning is the most mature out of the cast, evoking memories of Jodie Foster in the likes of Taxi Driver (the mature-ness and the edgy-ness, not the teenage prostitute…ness), whilst Griffiths is the scene stealing fat best friend that we really haven’t had since the 80’s. The adult cast very much play second fiddle to the young cast, but Chandler is a particular stand-out, adding complexity to the father role that adds authenticity to the father-son relationship.
The strongest element of the story does lie with its development and portrayal of young innocent friendship, but it certainly delivers thrills that Spielberg would be proud of. The action follows very similar beats to the likes of Jaws and Jurassic Park. The thrills and suspense are played out in the Jaws fashion of less-is-more, by gradually revealing the mysterious creature as the movie progresses. The thrills come fine enough, and the action is incredibly well executed, the train crash is awe-inspiring and chaotic, and the alien attacks leave you on the edge, one scene evoking memories of The Lost World’s High-Hide T-rex attack. However, if there is something to criticise about this movie, it is that the sci-fi elements of the story aren’t as deftly handled as the more emotional and human elements of the story. There are moments when the sci-fi doesn’t seems to blend too well with the coming-of-age story. The alien itself isn’t particularly impressive once it’s revealed, a close cousin to the Cloverfield creature, but one which can’t match the personality of say E.T. But all this doesn’t matter too much when you remember why the alien is there in the first place, it is to push Joe and his friends to mature and find themselves amongst the scenario of a terrible crisis. Sure, we don’t all experience an alien encounter in order to force ourselves to grow up, but the human journey is what remains important to this movie, and is what keeps you hooked, not the alien action.
J.J. Abrams’ certainly knows what is important to keep a movie interesting, involving and exciting. It all comes down to characters, emotion and heart, then you let everything follow suit (something Sucker Punch failed to do). Super 8 is also a very personal film, as what these kids film-making activities is what Abrams’ would’ve done at their age in that kind of environment, a common thread he shares with Mr. Spielberg. The atmosphere and spirit of this movie is pure nostalgia, it feels like it was made in the late 70’s, it would very easily fit in the ranks with the films it hails as its influences. Yet despite all the references, the action, the impressive special effects and cinematic technique on show, it is the characters and the spirit of the movie that stays with you once you’ve watched it, even if it can be described as schmultzy (wouldn’t be Spielberg otherwise). And that is the best way he could have paid tribute to all those films, and particularly to Steven Spielberg, as that sense of satisfaction and warmth is what the best Hollywood movies leave you with. And to be honest, they all came from the 70’s and the 80’s. Super 8 is one of those films that reminds you why you love movies. And for that J.J., I thank you.