Friday, 5 August 2011

Super 8

In 1979, in the small town of Lillian, Joe has just lost his mother in an industrial accident. His father, the town’s Deputy, is struggling to cope and Joe is retreating into making a zombie film with his friends on a Super 8 camera. However, shooting one night at a train station, they witness and accidently film a major train crash, where they find hundreds of mysterious white cubes. The accident brings the U.S. Air Force into town and triggers a series of strange events: People, pets and electric devices have begun disappearing, and no-one knows where they’re going. The team of young filmmakers become determined to figure out what’s going on when Alice, the star of their film, disappears... Or perhaps she was taken by a mysterious creature...

Oh, J.J. Abrams, how you love your secrets. First, you produced Lost, which started out with a huge plane crash and led to one of most addictive and infuriating TV series in recent history, the conclusion of which still has people talking a year after broadcast. Then, he came back and produced Cloverfield, a film which was known for months before as its release simply as 1-18-08 and offered no details of its plot in its trailers other than the Statue of Liberty’s head being torn off (though to be fair, that’s all you needed to know). Now, we have Super 8, another Abrams super-secret semi-autobiographical project about a train crash and some sort of alien creature. So has this been overhyped? On reflection, I'd say no. It's a great summer movie that has proper potential and lives up to it.

I'll be honest, this definitely wasn’t what I was expecting from an Abrams project. Though, on that last point, my expectations began getting subverted with every trailer that got released. Super 8 turned from another Cloverfield-style monster movie to a Goonies-style kid-driven adventure film which isn’t E.T., but shares a lot of common DNA and I’m not entirely sure if I was comfortable with that. Upon watching it, it’s a lovely story, and it still does have a bit of that Cloverfield monsterishness though in a far nicer, less apocalyptic chaos kind of way which actually makes for a far more comfortable and engaging viewing experience instead of going ‘OOH look, it crushed a building’ every two minutes.

The group of kids all put in great performances here, especially impressive considering lead actor Joel Courtney, who plays Joe, had never acted before. However, as with all film featuring a group of actors, there is a stand out, and this time around it’s Elle Fanning, younger sister of Dakota (Where’d she go, by the way?). She’s really fantastic as Alice, daughter of an alcoholic dad and actress in the Super 8 zombie film who develops a young romance with Joe. In particular, there’s a small scene where the actors are rehearsing dialogue for their film, the Super 8 isn’t even rolling, and Alice delivers this amazing heartbreaking monologue which just dumbfounds the kids and left me gobsmacked that someone that young could access as much as emotion as she does in that small moment. And then, as soon as her monologue’s over, she snaps back into normal Alice, the moment passes and it’s as if it’s the most natural thing in the world. Fantastic. Other than that, Kyle Chandler is good enough as Joe’s dad, and Noah Emmerich is mildly frightening as the intimidating Colonel Nelec.

As for the alien creature itself, much in the same way you only saw glimpses of the monster in Cloverfield, you only get passing glimpses of this one before a full-on look at its face in the third act, taking a page once again out of the Ridley Scott/Alien book, less is more. However, once it's been revealed, you start seeing nothing but the monster, and ruins the mystique to a degree. There’s something distinctly spider-like about it, and seems like a distant cousin of the Cloverfield monster. I did have a small problem with the train crash, the catalyst for the events of the film. It was well executed, truly it’s a ballet of flying metal and explosions and utter chaos. The problem is it just keeps going. And going. And going. It’s an endless train wreck, which I assume is because Abrams got excited by the bright lights and the loud noises. It’s an important part of the film, is not the most important part, and any realism it might have had is thrown out the window because it becomes distinctly Michael Bay like. Urgh.

Overall, it’s a lovely throwback to both the 1980’s teen adventure film in the same vein of The Goonies, and family-orientated Spielberg films like E.T., which is hardly surprising given Spielberg's role as producer here, presumably to stop him suing Abrams from ripping off E.T. It’s a strange hybrid but it’s pretty cohesive. Spielberg’s influence is clear as the film deals with a young boy dealing with personal emotional problems as well as the wider alien conflict pretence. Abrams has gone and made a film which has a little bit of something for everyone and I know that’s a horrendous cliché, but Super 8 genuinely does. It’s E.T. meets The Goonies, so everybody wins, right?

Rating: ****