J.J. Abrams and Steven Spielberg. A match made in cinematic heaven for any film geek. Here they collaborate – Abrams as writer/director, Spielberg as producer – on Super 8, a wonderfully enchanting, genuinely thrilling and surprisingly emotional sci-fi film where the characters matter just as much as the wonder and spectacle.
A group of friends are out filming an amateur movie with their Super 8 camera (hence the title) near a train track when suddenly they witness a massive derailing. Soon after they start noticing strange things going on around their town as the military step in to handle a mysterious situation which involves something which has escaped from the train wreckage.
Super 8 is largely about “the mystery box.” That is, the wondering of what’s really going on, what’s inside the box (so to speak), rather than what’s actually in it. It’s the reason why people love magic tricks so much – it’s better not to know and wonder yourself how it’s done than just being shown… at least right away. Abrams is a great purveyor of mystery – just look at his past record which includes co-creation of that most mysterious of TV shows, Lost, and shepherding the ultra-secretive Cloverfield, amongst others – and here he amps up the mystery, and more importantly the wonderment about what the answer may be, to full volume.
Having said that, despite this being Abrams’ film as both writer and director (his name is thrown around so much as producer people tend to forget he’s only ever actually directed three movies, including this), Spielberg’s presence can be felt all throughout the film. The most obvious comparison is to his beloved 1982 film E.T., but it’s often more akin to his earlier Close Encounters of the Third Kind, with its starry-eyed innocent wonder of the possible. This is a movie more interested in the “what if?” than the “what.”
Another comparison can be drawn to a different ’80s classic – Rob Reiner’s Stand By Me. The camaraderie between the friends is reminiscent of Reiner’s film from 25 years ago (don’t you feel old?), as is the bond that keeps them together through trying times. Crucially the casting of the kids is excellent, from Joey Courtney as Joe, the natural leader of the group, to Elle Fanning as the straight-talking Alice who is the object of more than one of the group’s affections and the one who seems to keep them all grounded, if for no other reason than she’s the only girl. Much of the focus is kept on the group of kids but the adults don’t exactly get left out to dry either, with the likes of Kyle Chandler (who some of you may recognise from the TV show Friday Night Lights) as Joe’s protective father to Noah Emmerich as the tough and secretive Colonel Nelec.
So many action and sci-fi movies these days are just churned out with no real lasting effect. Super 8 is definitely not one of those films. You can just feel while watching that the people behind it genuinely put their heart and soul into it, with an honest-to-goodness love for the art of filmmaking. There aren’t any significant moments or even whole scenes which feel out of place or insincere in any way, with the action serving a purpose instead of overshadowing everything else.
Super 8 works as well as it does because it takes its time to establish and develop its characters meticulously, always carving out whatever time it can amongst the mysterious and often hectic events to add more layers to each of them. This means that once we get into the thick of the action we genuinely care about what happens to the characters – particularly the main group of kids – and hoping to hell that whatever that thing is that escaped the train wreck doesn’t get them. The film harkens back to a simpler time for movies where the thrill of the chase from “the monster” (whatever that may be) and the hope for the “prey’s” survival was actually effective and not jammed into a film for the sake of it as is often the case these days.
There has been some criticism about the last act of the film (really about the only major complaint people have had with it), the point in which things really get amped up action-wise and the (possible SPOILER AHEAD) alien is finally shown. Now while this is a valid point of contention to have it’s certainly not a weakness of the film as far as I’m concerned. As fun as the mystery box is there gets to a point, particularly in a monster movie like this, where you need to give the audience something substantial to grasp onto. Super 8 gives just enough of that in the last act to satisfy curiosity but not so much that it gives everything away. I thought Abrams struck a great balance between pulling back the curtain but still keeping secrets.
There might be a few too many instances for its own good of blatant references to films past (if you didn’t grow up in the ’80s a lot of the unapologetic nostalgia might be lost on you), but Super 8 offers classic thrills mixed with a sincere sense of wonder as well as genuine heart and emotion to boot (all helped tremendously by another fantastic score from the great Michael Giacchino). In a summer of superheroes, mindless transforming robots fighting each other and that famous boy wizard battling his nemesis once and for all, Super 8 is good old fashioned entertainment. And I loved just about every minute of it.