The films begins first with a tragedy (which is simply and devastatingly touched upon) which sets into motion the struggles between the main child protagonist and his father (Friday Night Light’s Kyle Chandler), a widowed police deputy who is insistent that his son attend summer baseball camp and not idle his days away with a group of friends making little Super 8 films. Joe (a nicely unstated turn by newcomer Joel Courtney) is far from happy at this proposal as he and his friends are in the midst of shooting a zombie epic, of which he is prepping to shoot at an old, disused railway platform that very night. As the young, budding filmmakers assemble (what follows is a beautifully-acted scene as the kids rehearse for a take) they soon find themselves caught in the middle of a epic train crash – an incredibly gripping sequence as huge, flaming cargo carriages swirl around the kids and plummet back down to earth as they make a frantic scramble to safety.
The resulting pile-up appears to unleash some strange and powerful unseen force from within a holding tank, and some equally otherworldly artefacts (which one of the group mistakes for some kind of enhanced Rubik’s Cube). As the understandably shaken-up kids (nice to see performers reacting appropriately to such a dramatic incident) stumble upon the cause of the accident, the arrival of the military forces them to flee the scene. Soon their small town is under lockdown as a mysterious and malevolent force is doing away with its inhabitants, causing family pets to flee from homes and household appliances to disappear.
As you may have read, Abrams has previously stated that this film was a meshing together of two scripts – one, a rites-of-passage period tale of young teenagers shooting Super 8 movies, and the other which focused on the military transporting an alien from Area 51. Unfortunately, the two tales reconfigured as one becomes very noticeable towards the midway mark, where the alien thread of the story begins to feel increasingly shoe-horned in with the other coming-of-age hook, leading to character contrivances and leaps in logic which hurt the narrative. The kids certainly seem to piece together the creatures plans and mindset given only the sparsest of information, (which itself is delivered via some clucky exposition), and the slow build up which has come before (with some expertly-handled moments of suspense) gives way to a more bombastic tone and a much more simplistic dénouement, losing most of the character intimacy and mystery that it’s spent so long on establishing, and which has worked so well up until an hour or so in.
The kids stuff is certainly strongest part of the film, and the young cast are all pretty fantastic. Courteney has just that right mix of wide-eyed innocence, but he also has an inner strength and resolve which is very appealing too. The gang’s sole female member (and potential heart-breaker), Elle Fanning, does some solid work here as well, and Riley Griffiths as Charles, the pushy director who is constantly looking at ways to enhance his film (he excitedly yells “Production value!” as he rushes to catch the oncoming train on celluloid) is very funny. It’s all the more frustrating when this initially fine character work begins to ebb away as the film progresses.
J. J. Abrams insistence in adhering so close to that halcyon Spielberg era does produce some fun results (the frantic, multiple kids environment in Charles’ household is a delightful nod to the suburban hijacks in the likes of Poltergeist and ‘Close Encounters’) but in being so reverential to that style, Abram’s his own directorial imprint (apart from the cosmetic redeployment of tons of lens flares) is scarcely noticeable. Unlike his mentor, he really struggles too in establishing a human connection and empathy with the alien, and the ending (which can’t help but recall ET’s) doesn’t convey anywhere close to the emotion payoff of to that film. Admittedly, it’s a tough job to try and achieve something which sits within that high benchmark of pop cinema, but if you’re referencing that age and style of filmmaking, comparisons (however unfounded) will undoubtedly be made. Composer and Abram regular Michael Giacchino’s work suffers too as he attempts to emulate the great John Williams (very evident in the more dramatic notes) but unlike his work on Star Trek, where he took an extremely well-worn theme and made it his own, there’s little here which bears much of his own musical stamp.
Even more worrying, when the alien is revealed in all its full glory towards the end (Abrams thankfully works with that long-established trope of leaving it a mystery until then) it looks like a discarded design for one of the robots in Transformers, which someone in the art department at Paramount has dug out and reworked with a flesh and blood makeover. In many ways, the film seems to be fighting a losing battle between that more intimate character and fantasy mix which was synonymous with Spielberg’s earlier work, and the current, far-from-subtle era of cinema he is producing, which is very much characterised by those wearisome robots in disguise.
Some of this criticism may sound a little nit-picky and Super 8 is far from a bad movie and is often very enjoyable, but having raised the bar so high in the Star Trek universe those two summers back, and by demonstrating an ability to blend a breathlessly exciting atmosphere with a rewarding level of emotional investment into characters and their predicaments, sadly, Abrams doesn’t come close to matching it here.
It’s a summer movie which is worth seeing (although claims of it being an original endeavour seem a tad moot, given the homage-filled content) but don’t go in there expecting an immensely satisfying throwback to the 80’s school of awe and wonder. You may have to wait for the further adventures of Kirk and Co. for that.