Ever since he made the leap from small screen hot shot to big screen blockbuster magnet, it’s safe to say that the movie career of J.J. Abrams has been a little odd. Touted hard to be possibly the next Spielberg or even Lucas, Abrams has nevertheless found himself directing a near unbroken string of sequels, reboots and sequels to reboots that has, to date, only seen a single movie of his spool through a projector that’s based on an original premise.
Now, I say original premise; but 2011’s sci-fi nostalgia-fest, Super 8, seems to have been crafted to be an unabashed, living, breathing lump of undiluted Spielberg worship that soaks up gallons of nostalgia and a bunch of film-savvy kids who are painfully coming of age and then wrings it out all over it’s rather jarring premise – what if E.T. had gone nuts in the equivalent of Guantanamo Bay and then escaped?
It’s 1979 and school kid Joe Lamb is trying to adjust after the death of his mother by doing the special effects on the super 8 zombie movie his friends are making for a film festival. Friction is building with Jackson, his police deputy father, who is finding the raised responsibility of being a sole parent but he finds solace in the company of pretty blonde, Alice Dainard who has been drafted into the movie to play the wife of the main character. While sneaking out in the dead of night to shoot a scene at a local train station, they witness an apocalyptic train crash that launches freight cars into the air like huge, explodey toys and from the resulting wreckage emerges a large, inhuman beast that lurches off into the night.
From here, things get decidedly odd for the scared townspeople as electrical components are ripped from cars and generators in the dead of night, various people – including the chief of police – have gone missing and every pooch in the vicinity has upped sticks and fled to other counties, but through it all, Joe, Alice and the gang keep beavering away at their movie, even when the military comes to town in force and starts acting suspiciously.
Tensions reach boiling point in the Lamb household when Jackson forbids his son from seeing Alice any more due to the ongoing animosity he has with Alice’s drunkard father, but that falls into insignificance when Alice is the latest person to turn up missing. What exactly is this thing that’s stalking the surrounding area; where did it come from and why is Air Force Col. Nelec resorting to such extreme measures to catch this thing?
As the kids try to figure this mystery out, their friendship will be tested to the limit by growing pains, childhood crushes and the very real likelihood of being torn in half like a phone book by a rampaging alien.
Super 8 shows what us what summer movies could have been like if Abrams hadn’t been snared by the bright, sparkly lure of sequels to Star’s Trek and Wars. An altogether slower and more deliberately crafted movie than your usual summer spectacular, it invokes the more human aspect of small town close encounters that feels very much in the Spielberg wheelhouse such as E.T. and Close Encounters Of The Third Kind.
Firmly putting spectacle on the back foot in favour the kind of adolescent camaraderie that’s now commonplace thanks to Stranger Things and the It reboots, Super 8 is most fun when we’re cozily nestled in the mountainous bosom of film nerd nostalgia as the director channels the warm experiences of screwing around with monster makeup and crude filmmaking techniques from his childhood.
The drama works too, after all you can’t make a movie under the Amblin banner without some sort if trauma to the family unit and the aftershocks caused by Joe’s mother’s accident thankfully don’t lean too much into the realms of the saccharine but instead is handled with a sublimely gentle touch. Handled well too is the burgeoning romance between Joe and Alice as their frowned upon relationship heals the various wounds caused by their broken homes, but while competently written, it’s the performances of Joel Courtney and Elle Fanning that make it required viewing and not just something that makes us wait for the weird, sci-fi stuff.
That “weird, sci-fi stuff” is somewhat of an Abrams staple at this point, what with the film being released with the usual amount of paranoid secrecy reserved for any project that the director has remotely anything to do with and oddly, it proves to be the weakest aspect of the plot. It’s not that it’s handled badly in any way – far from it as all the monster stuff is amazingly staged with all the Hitchcockian flair J.J. can muster – but it often feels like it’s getting in the way of the real meat of the matter instead of enhancing it. Plus the creature’s raison d’être – that of being vaguely nuts thanks to years of confinement and abuse – is a good enough reason for it being a threat, but the way the problem is rectified by it telepathically realising that “shit happens”, is a little too convenient to be completely satisfying. Plus its design, while imaginative, is not a million miles away from the other gangly-limbed creatures seen in other movies that Abrams has had a hand in and it feels slightly derivative.
In fact, if there is a problem running through Super 8, it’s that even back in 2011 there was a sense of “been there, done that” about the project that all the great performances and intelligent direction just simply couldn’t shake. That’s not to say that the movie hasn’t got moments that give you the blockbuster tingles; the train crash that kicks everything off is fucking superb and a scene where Joe and Alice bond and confess over footage of his late mother is heart rending; but by far the best moment of the film is the end credits where we get to watch the entirety of the Super 8 zombie in all its wonky glory. It serves as a sharp reminder that as good as Abrams Spielbergian love letter is, making the kids love of filmmaking maybe should’ve been more central.
Super 8 is super great, but it’s director really needs to come out of the shadow of his peers and do something completely out of his comfort zone.