Super 8 (2011)
(12A) Running time: 112 minutes
Reviewed by: Matt Wavish, official HCF critic
JJ Abrams homage to early Spielberg (who served as producer) and late 70’s and early 80’s teenage/family classics such as Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Goonies, Stand By Me and E.T is a mixed bag. I blame myself for getting caught up in all the hype and getting a little too excited for what I was hoping was going to be Cloverfield spliced with all of the above. That is not to say I was disappointed, just maybe I built the film up a little too much for myself. Super 8 is a charming, lovely little story that works really well as one genre of film, and falls almost embarrassingly flat as another genre. However, Abrams shows off some superb skills here, and after the special effects driven Star Trek, the thrilling Mission Impossible 3, mind bending Fringe and Lost and producing Cloverfield, Abrams has shown here that he can tell a relatively normal story and allow a more human and almost everyday life kind of plot carry a film. What we have here is two different films merged into one, first and foremost a very humane tale of a bunch of kids wanting to make a movie on their Super 8 camera for a movie competition, and secondly an alien film living in the shadows of Cloverfield.
For the most part Super 8 really works; Abrams has somehow created a film based in the summer of 1979 which actually feels like it has been made in 1979. The Super 8 camera itself had only just been issued and the group of kids, lead by Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) and film director Charles (Riley Griffiths) are using it to film a Zombie horror in which Charles is desperate to enter into a competition. The film comes about four months after Joe lost his Mother due to an accident at work and Joe’s Father, Deputy Sherriff Jackson Lamb (Kyle Chandler) is struggling to deal with the death of his beloved wife. He blames Louis Dainard (Ron Eldard) for not turning up to work that day, and Louis’ daughter Alice (Elle Fanning) happens to be Joe’s love interest and star of their film. After a brief funeral and moment of mourning over the death of his Mother, we move forward four months and Joe’s Father is talking about sending him away and so he decides to make the movie and make the best of his summer with his friends. The whole bunch of youngsters are so incredibly likeable and a pleasure to watch on screen as they make their film and go about everyday life in the summer of 79. Abrams, apart from a few minor glitches, gets the feel of this film absolutely spot on, the safeness you feel as a kid, the adventure in things going wrong, the excitement in disasters and having to keep secrets, the bond of friendship and ultimately the young, innocent love between a young lad and a young girl with all those experiences ahead of them. Joe’s Father is at times strict, but not in a way that makes you hate him, more in a way of a Father struggling to deal with grief. Joe himself carries a silver pendant with a picture of his Mother everywhere. Abrams proves here that he can well and truly handle emotion and strong family ties and pure friendships and it is a skill I would very much like to see more of…
The young friends, as I’ve already said, are a joy to watch on screen, just like the cast of Stand By Me or The Goonies. Always hungry for adventure and enjoying every obstacle life throws at them. It’s this kind of innocence that makes you wish you could be young again. Watching the group in a local diner as they poke fun at the ‘tubby’ one Charles for eating all the chips, he himself lets out a heartfelt plea later in the film to Joe and how he knows that Alice would never be interested in someone like him, a moment handled so well it nearly brought a tear to this reviewers eye! The unity in this group is strong, and you have a great feeling that they will look out for each other no matter what, and what is about to happen. While filming a night scene where they want a train to rush past as Alice lets out her heartfelt lines to Martin (Gabriel Basso), they get their wish, but things go wrong. A car speeds toward the oncoming train, derails it and all of a sudden the film shifts gears into regular Abrams territory. The train crash and following disaster of carriages exploding and debris and explosives flying though the air is one of those special moments that will sit nicely alongside the greatest moments in cinema this year! Tense, jaw dropping and staggering visuals and sound effects make this extended scene something to treasure, if you are not yet awake watching this film, you will be now! It almost feels like Abrams is on course to expertly splice old 70’s and 80’s themed films with superior special CGI effects laden treasures of today, almost.
As you probably know, the train is carrying a cargo the US Air Force do not want discovered, and so what follows is a well written plot of town VS Military VS Monster, but here is where the film starts to falter. I am in no way saying this is a bad film, far from it, but the merging of old style adventurous youngster genre movies with today’s more in your face Monster movies does not quite work. Suddenly you have an almighty urge to see the Monster and everything you see in-between little teases of the beast just serve as dragged out story. Granted the bits in-between are still superb, still heart warming, still moving and still incredibly engaging, but the whole story has suddenly been over-run with this terrible urge to see what Abrams has come up with in terms of a Monster. I so wanted to like this film, I really, truly and painfully did, maybe too much but the whole thing began to fall apart. The train crash was superb but then it slowed to a halt and the problem we have is we know what Abrams is capable of, and suddenly we want to see the spectacle. The characters still mean something, but not as much as they did before and Abrams desperately tries to focus your attention on his cast of brilliant little actors while giving you the odd glimpse of his Monster. The Monster, to be fair, is superb but sadly, is not what I was hoping for.
I really hate to say this because the film is close to untouchable in its brilliance at times, but I walked away from this feeling terribly deflated and a little cheated. The final twenty minutes reduce to levels of almost embarrassingly rubbish, and a particular scene involving Joe and the alien is so bad and out of place I came close to walking out. Suddenly it didn’t feel like an Abrams film, full of menace and un-predictability and we were in early Spielberg mode where the treating of the audience like babies came into play (this is early Spielberg I said) where we have to see things play out in the best possible way. The final twenty, even thirty minutes are a mess with a bizarre plot twist involving the military and their weapons and a silly, stupid and sick inducing alien encounter. I don’t believe Abrams played it safe, more played to the audience he was hoping would enjoy this sort of ending but, sadly, this sort of movie audience died off in the era it was meant for. And here lies my biggest issue with Super 8. It is a great film, a superb film at times and one with real emotional power, superb characters and a brilliant sense of wonder and adventure, but it has been brought up to date with the addition of today’s need for the ultimate spectacle and it does not deliver that spectacle. Abrams clearly proves his wealth of talent, clearly shows his love of early Spielberg and the classics that clearly influenced him but something here just did not work, it didn’t feel right. Maybe I missed something and on second watch on Bluray I will enjoy this more, maybe I just built the darned thing up too much and my expectations were too high, maybe I just simply expected more from Abrams. Whatever it is, Super 8 IS a superb film for the majority, but there a flaws, major flaws and a real lack of that all important ‘wow’ factor!
For a slightly different view on the film you can view Dr Lenera’s review here
Dr Lenera scored the film 7.5/10