In 2010, amidst the flood of adaptations that filled the blockbuster season, Christopher Nolan’s Inception stood out for being not only an effective thriller, but more importantly for being one of the few original concept tent-pole releases of the year. This year you may hear similar things about JJ Abrams’ Super 8, but please do not be fooled. Super 8 is in fact arguably the most derivative film of the year, but for people of a certain generation who grew up on 80s family adventure films, it really is a rare treat. Working from the template perfected by executive producer Steven Spielberg in films such as Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and E.T., Abrams delivers a sweet, nostalgic, and often frightening film unlike anything seen in cinemas for many years.
While there is a lot to enjoy in many contemporary blockbusters, it takes a film like Super 8 to highlight the absence of a crucial ingredient in modern movies: heart. Most summer films released over the past decade have certainly been big on action set-pieces and visual effects, but everything else about them seems distressingly interchangeable. There’s a lone male hero. A love interest. A problem to be solved. And in many cases a kiss at the end. There’s no denying that it’s a successful formula (the box office numbers speak for themselves), but it is somewhat fleeting success. It really is a great shame that what people will remember about the films of the early 21st century is the style rather than the substance. In Jaws, it’s not the shark itself we remember so much as the pursuit of the shark and interactions between Brody, Hooper and Quint. In E.T., it’s the relationship between Elliott and the titular alien. Super 8 is Abrams’ love-letter to that period in cinema, and keen eyed viewers will undoubtedly spot many homages to films such as Stand By Me, The Goonies, and most obviously the early work of his mentor Spielberg. The film is rich with sentimentality, keenly addressing childhood issues of friendship, ambition, problems with parents, and first love. The adults in the film (including a great performance from Kyle Chandler) are all crucial to keep the narrative moving, but the beauty of Super 8 comes from its focus on the perspective of the kids. They’re a rag-tag bunch of largely unknown young actors who all do a terrific job (especially the freakishly talented Elle Fanning), and Abrams wisely allows the camera to linger on small character moments rather than simply jumping from one set-piece to the next as so often happens nowadays. Allowing development of these characters makes them seem all the more real, and when things get nasty (which they do), there’s genuine fear about what’s going to happen to these youngsters. Abrams ratchets up the tension with scream-inducing (at least in my screening) jump scares, and opts to keep the threat hidden for the majority of the film, another nice Spielbergian touch. Super 8 really is a masterpiece of tone.
I guess I haven’t really mentioned the plot in this review, but this is a film about emotion, harking back to a time where the plot was merely a foundation on which to build authentic character relationships. But yes, ostensibly Super 8 is a monster movie, and unfortunately Abrams fumbles at the goal line as the film draws to a close, hampered by the necessity to finish the monster story. As with any creature feature, the monster is merely a frightening manifestation of a bigger issue facing the characters, and Abrams’ attempt at pathos comes off as a little clunky. But where a lesser film would perhaps be ruined by such an obvious emotional climax, Abrams’ heartfelt handling of the characters in the film’s build-up allows some forgiveness. Super 8 is never going to be the highest grosser of the year, but it warms the soul to know that this type of filmmaking is still around, and hopefully the film will find an audience with today’s young and young-at-heart. Now if you’ll excuse me, I feel a strong desire to watch Close Encounters.