Super 8 – Film Review

All about Steve

Release Date: 5 August 2011
12A | 111 mins
Distributor: Paramount
Director: JJ Abrams
Cast: Kyle Chandler, Elle Fanning, Joel Courtney, Gabriel Basso

The flying bicycle of Steven Spielberg’s iconic Amblin logo dissolving into the famous automaton of JJ Abrams’s Bad Robot outfit isn’t just about identifying the brains behind Super 8. It’s symbolic of a handing over of the baton, the younger man stepping up to inherit the legend’s mantle as Hollywood’s king of the sci-fi blockbuster, the guy who has the most direct of direct lines to the hearts and minds of the geek masses. That Abrams (particularly hot right now off the back of Star Trek) should seal the deal with such an unashamed love letter to Spielberg’s late ’70s/early ’80s glory days is rather poetic.

With Spielberg producing and Abrams writing and directing, this always looked like a match made in movie heaven. It turns out to be everything your wildest dreams could have hoped for. Super 8 is cast straight from the mould Spielberg used to make Close Encounters Of The Third Kind and ET, a near-perfect mix of wide-eyed wonder, warmth and edge-of-your-seat thrills that many have tried to emulate, yet few have got close to capturing. In fact, it’s difficult to imagine even present-day Spielberg – the man who’s become part of the Tinseltown establishment with the less popcorny likes of Munich and Saving Private Ryan – directing a film so quintessentially, well, Spielbergian.

But don’t go thinking this is just some cover-versiony homage, because Abrams is so much more than a fanboy going through the motions. Yes, the adherence to the old Spielberg formula borders on infatuation, but the fact that he’s so clearly steeped in what made those Spielberg classics work means not having to overanalyse the formula – it’s in his heart, such a massive influence on his impressive body of movies and TV shows that the affection can’t help but shine through. Indeed, you get the feeling that Super 8 was made as much for Abrams as it was the audience, yet somehow the film never feels like a vanity project.

While the movie already being out in US cinemas (why has the UK had to wait so long?) means some leaks are inevitable, to give away too much of the plot would be harsh. Abrams’s now-standard pre-release veil of secrecy does the movie a massive service, and going in cold gives you the chance to experience a movie as pre-internet audiences would have seen Raiders Of The Lost Ark, Jaws, ET, Close Encounters and all those other Spielberg gems – in blissful ignorance, ready to be amazed. All you really need to know can be gleaned from the trailer: that it’s 1979 in a small Ohio steel town (random trivia: Ohio is Spielberg’s home state), that some kids are making a Super 8 zombie movie, and that they witness a massive train derailment – a crash that results in something nasty escaping from US military captivity.

What makes Super 8 truly great, however, is that said something isn’t the main attraction. Sure, it’s a genuinely scary threat, and a Cloverfield-style triumph of design and direction – for most of the movie, Abrams teases with tiny glimpses, making sure that you never quite get a handle on what you’re looking at – but for much of the running time it’s essentially a very dangerous McGuffin. Abrams is far more interested in what fear and extraordinary circumstances do to his young leads than showing in graphic detail what his Big Bad could do to them.

Just as Spielberg coaxed amazing performances out of Drew Barrymore et al in ET, Abrams makes sure his own juvenile stars are thoroughly convincing. Rather than being assembled from the jock/nerd/punk list of stereotypes that populates most US teen movies, the five lads making The Case, the movie within the movie, feel like a believable unit – they bicker, share in-jokes and, when Elle Fanning’s streetwise Alice joins their company, get jealous of one another. Of the ensemble, Fanning (Dakota’s little sister) and Joel Courtney’s recently bereaved Joe are the standouts, but no-one looks out of place. The grown-ups, too (none of them household names), get plenty to do in a story that skirts close to schmaltzy territory (issues with parents, first love, the death of a parent), but never gets sucked in. Indeed, the slushiest thing in the film is arguably the now pre-requisite appearance for Abrams’s fictional sweet drink of choice, Slusho.

And while it’s a vision of a smalltown America that probably never existed (did kids ever climb through each other’s bedroom windows in the small hours?), Super 8 completely transports you to another time and place, even down to the nostalgia of the posters and toys in the kids’ bedrooms. So much so that when the kids ride their bikes around town you almost expect a little beige alien to raise a glowing finger and send them floating towards the Moon.

Even though that doesn’t happen, there are plenty of moments to make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up, a real sense of magic. For big kids, a chance to relive the classic films that forged their love of sci-fi. For the kids of today, it’s a film they’ll want to show their kids another 30 years down the line.

Richard Edwards