Director: J.J. Abrams
Writer: J.J. Abrams
Cast: Joel Courtney, Elle Fanning, Kyle Chandler
Director J.J. Abrams has described Super 8 as a homage to the films his producer, Steven Spielberg, made back in the 1980s. He succeeds in creating that kind of mood. The influence of those films is obvious; we immediately recognise the suburbs, the kids riding everywhere on bicycles, the old-fashioned sense of adventure. Nostalgia is a big part of the film but Abrams doesn’t overdo it, with the exception of a few too many lens flares.
Super 8 revolves around a group of children making a zombie movie, clearly influenced by the Romero classics they are not supposed to have seen. They are inventive and determined young filmmakers, writing and rewriting scenes on notepaper, recruiting an older actress from school and sneaking out late at night to film the perfect scene. The children are endearing as a group; they appear childish in ways that modern children often do not. The relationship that develops between the central character, Joe (Joel Courtney), and Alice (Elle Fanning, who follows up Somewhere with another impressive performance) is very sweet and never overbearing.
While filming a late night scene, the children witness a train crash and it is clear that there is more to it than meets the eye. The crash is a superb action sequence; the train is tossed elastically in the air carriage by carriage. There is a dramatic contrast between light and dark, a trick that is repeated later on in another visually excellent scene that sees the military begin to destroy the suburb. After the train crash, a great sense of mystery develops; Joe takes a strange metallic cube as a souvenir, the town’s dogs simultaneously retreat to a ten mile radius, and the military presence increases. The cause of the mayhem is an extra-terrestrial monster, a powerful, spidery creature that was secretly being transported on the train.
The atmosphere is perfect and the story appears to be developing nicely, but, towards the end, Super 8 begins to falter. The monster is better left in the shadows and ends up looking like a weird cross between the creatures in Alien and Avatar. Its lair appears to have been produced entirely for aesthetic effect rather than being an appropriate fit for the rest of the film. The ending generally appears rushed and the final confrontation is so innocuous, it may as well not have happened at all. I was pleased to see the homemade zombie film included in the credits. If it hadn’t been, it may have been easier to forget why I enjoyed Super 8 so much in the first place.
It’s a film that does the little things well. It could have easily been an exercise in empty nostalgia, but the writing and characterisation are too strong to allow that to happen. The best scene sees Joe apply makeup to Alice’s face. She gives him her best zombie impersonation and he ends up with fake blood on his neck. It’s a very tangible moment, one that seems every bit as significant as any disaster going on around them. And it’s that kind of scene that legitimises Super 8 as an excellent film in its own right, rather than one that depends solely on its connection to Spielberg’s past achievements.