RUNNING TIME:112 mins
DISTRIBUTED BY:Paramount Pictures
February 1979, in the town of Lillian, Ohio. Elizabeth Lamb has been killed in an accident, leaving young Joe just with a father who has never really been there for him due to his job as the Sheriff. Four months later it is summer, and Joe and some friends are making a short zombie movie to enter in a competition. Joe is also starting to experience the pangs of first love for the Alice, the female lead of the film. Whilst shooting a scene at the railway station, they are witness to a dreadful train crash, possibly caused by a car on the track. Lot of strange white cubes are scattered about and their science teacher is discovered, dying and warning them not to tell anyone what they have seen. Soon after that the military start showing up and something is possibly stalking the town………..
I wasn’t sure if I was going to do a full review of Super 8, because fellow reviewer Matt seemed to nail the film so very accurately, and so much so that I remembering his review and nodding in agreement as I watched the film to certain points that he had made. The film did provoke a curious reaction as I exited the cinema though, namely that I wasn’t sure if it was a good film or not. I’m still not convinced. For most of its length, it’s a nicely low key story with considerable charm and a real sense of time, place and that moment when a child starts to develop slight characteristics of an adult. The film has considerable flaws though, and I wonder if its basic idea should have stayed an idea, because, though certainly beguiling [it was of course influenced by J.J.Abrams’ own childhood] it’s somewhat botched as seen here. Of course it’s largely a tribute to films like The Goonies and Stand By Me and reminded somewhat oddly of The Iron Giant; unfortunately it’s also a partial tribute to the horrid E.T.The Extra Terrestrial, a film I dislike with a passion [though I adore Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, so it’s probably just this critic again demonstrating his bizarre taste], though it’s considerably better than that!
The early moments set the stage with considerable economy, with just a few short scenes somehow transmitting some of the pain and sadness of Joe’s mother’s death, and we get a sense of all the characters almost immediately. This is one really great thing about this movie – virtually all the main protagonists, including the adults, are believable, convincing and undergo some form of character development without it seeming false and put in just for drama’s sake. The first half hour of Super 8 really is quite superb, having a wonderful nostalgic glow about it. You really feel like you are watching a film from the late 70s or the early 80s because the setting is so convincingly rendered and the film is even shot like one. Scenes showing the kids making their film are wonderfully charming and very funny, while Joe’s growing interest in Alice is genuinely sweet. Then the movie makes its first misstep with the train crash. It might be spectacular, but the train in no way looks like it’s part of the film, the CGI being really bad here. Still, tension now starts to develop and Abrams shows how good he might be making a straight horror film, with two scenes of people being stalked by the ‘monster’ being very good indeed, with especially effective use of sound like a gentle wind blowing or a railway signal creaking. Sadly, after one quite scary little scene which is a variation on the terrifying ‘birthday party’ bit from Signs, tension than begins to quickly evaporate with lots of scenes involving the military, which quite frankly could have been cut; I think it would have been much better to show everything from the children’s point of view.
Towards the end, the pace suddenly becomes very fast but the film almost goes off the rails, lost in a glut of shoddy CGI and terrible editing. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, it’s the Curse Of The One-Second Edit, The Random Close Up and The Shaking Camera again, so that during the action you can’t really see what’s going on and just get sore eyes. Now I didn’t actually mind it too much in Star Trek and it suited Cloverfield, but for a film set in 1979 and ostensibly in the style of a much older movie, this approach is a disaster. One scene involving being trapped in a van and glass starting to crack shows how much better Steven Spielberg can do this sort of thing. As for the effects, I wondered at one point if they were deliberately fake looking, in an imitation of the effects you may find in a ’79 film, but then I decided that probably wasn’t the case, because most effects from a film of that year look so much better. The actual creature looks okay in close up but when he’s moving about – well, I was never convinced he was actually there. The film as a whole gets almost disastrous towards the end, with the kids running to seemingly every building in town for whatever reason, and shouting “what’s happening?” every minute, the army shooting at seemingly nothing, and two of the most idiotic “huh?” scenes, both involving the creature, I’ve seen in ages. The ending really wants to be uplifting, but just feels fake, forced and rushed. I never thought I’d say this, but despite enjoying a great many films about aliens, I would much rather had the whole film be about the making of the zombie film, the romance, in fact everything except the alien and military stuff, because those elements of the film are so well judged and likeable. The rest just feels tacked on and just hasn’t been thought through. I wonder if Abrams realises this, because he treats us to the completed zombie film at the end, and it’s a joy to watch, better, in fact, than the proceeding half an hour.
I’ve already said how the direction is all over the place, and in addition to what I’ve already mentioned, there are countless Spielberg – like shots such as the ‘people looking up at something in awe’, which is annoyingly overused, and a ridiculous amount of lens flares. I know it’s an Abrams trademark but really overdone here. The acting though is quite superb by everyone, including the younger cast. They are mostly cast as stereotypes, purposely I’m sure – you know, the fat one, the nerdy one, the ‘normal’ one, etc, but care in the writing and perfectly pitched performances really make them into real people, maybe just a bit like you may have been when you were young. I was especially impressed with Elle Fanning as Alice; she manages to convey both childlike innocence and a kind of ‘wise beyond her years’ wisdom. Her scene when she gets carried away acting a major scene is simply wonderful. Michael Giacchino’s score sounds so much like John Williams I actually thought it was him at first [even though I know Giacchino usually does Abrams’ stuff], it replicates his chords, his instrumentation, everything, though Giacchino doesn’t really have Williams’ knack for memorable themes. There is a lot of good stuff in Super 8, and it’s an easy film to like, but there really is a great deal of crap in it as well, as if Abrams wasn’t really sure what film he was trying to make. I sure as hell wasn’t sure what film I was watching.