My friends and I have been making our own short films since we were, about oh, 14. While we weren’t using 8mm film stock, we were using VHS-C and, later, 8mm videotape. Editing was done in camera, or with two VCRs before we got access to some school Macs. The results were… well, about what you’d expect from a group of young, inexperienced genre lovers. I think those early films of ours contain an equal share of great and cringe-worthy moments. But the passion and fun is always there.
I say all this so you can have an idea of the frame of reference I approach a film like Super 8 with. Super 8 is the latest from geek-tease filmmaker JJ Abrams, and features a group of young teenage friends making a movie in 1979. One of the boys, our hero Joe Lamb, has just lost his mother in an industrial accident. He and his dad, Deputy Lamb, don’t really understand one another; Lamb Snr. doesn’t understand his son’s interest in monster make-up and horror & sci-fi films and is none too keen on him spending the summer making a zombie movie. The director of the zombie flick is Joe’s best friend Charles, a demanding kid who hassles and wrangles the others into the movie. There’s also the young pyro Cary, star Martin and general gopher Preston. Into this mix of young males, Charles brings in Alice Dainard to play the wife in his movie, to cram in an emotional core. Alice’s drunken dad was sorta kinda responsible for the death of Joe’s mum; he was too drunk to turn up for work, so she took his shift. Despite this, Joe and Alice share a connection. I can see a fair amount of me and my friends in this young group of filmmakers, though they’re obviously heightened. There’s the joy of hanging out together, all making a movie because you just love hanging out together and making movies. And it’s when they’re all together, shooting a scene at midnight at an old train station that HOLYSHIT BIG TRAIN CRASH EXPLOSION KABOOM POW CRASH BOOM PAH!
That train crash you’ve seen in the trailers? Well, this is nothing like what you’ve seen in the advertising – in a very, very good way. And it signals a hard right turn for the film – it’s here that Super 8 changes from a late-70's set coming-of-age film to a late-70's set coming-of-age film with a whacking great alien monster marauding through it. And while keeping back the images of the alien in the advertising is understandable, Abrams keeps obscuring it throughout the actual film, which only serves to become distracting. I can see what he's going for - a Jaws-like effect - but there's no big reveal, no huge Ohmygods moment so it doesn't really work. The creature in fact looks like a smaller cousin of the Cloverfield city-stomper; that is, not particularly memorable. Perhaps Abrams is envisioning Super 8 as being in the same shared universe as Cloverfield – but why?
In any case, the alien is not the star of the show nor the focus of the tale. The kids are. And the young actors making up the group of film-making friends are mostly great and hit that same sort of chemistry that made hanging out with the Goonies such fun. Joel Courtney as Joe is quite the young find managing to carry the emotional centre of the film superbly. And Elle Fanning (yes, younger sister of Dakota) is outright fantastic as Alice. Abrams peppers the adult characters with fine character actors like Kyle Chandler, Dan Castellaneta, Ron Eldard and Michael Hitchcock.
For Abrams' first original feature film (after two TV show adaptations) this is a solidly entertaining adventure. While the alien will never enter the hallowed halls of classic movie monsters, Abrams has otherwise made a cracking film; I could, in fact, have just watched this as a coming-of-age tale without the alien altogether. I'd be interested in seeing what Abrams can do away from the relative safety of genre films; this is the man who created Felicity after all. It feels like Super 8 is a step in that direction with the sci-fi element being Frankensteined on, but only a step.
There is an obvious Spielbergian quality to the film; Abrams is directly referencing and calling back to the early films of Spielberg. Which is not to say Super 8 is some sort of slavish homage (Superman Returns); this is still through Abrams' lens: instead of an absent father, there is a struggling father. And where Spielberg’s “kids” movies took place in the time period in which they were made, Abrams has gone back to the time period of his own childhood; the time when Spielberg was making these films. Does Abrams think there is no innocence anymore? Are kids today too interconnected via technology? Or, is it just a little bit of nostalgia and a call back to his childhood? I think it must be a little from all of those.
What Abrams doesn't manage to take from Spielberg though, is his elegance. Spielberg's films, for all their whiz-bang special effects, always have a real heart at the centre of them with everything intertwining and leading to the emotional pay off come the end. Abrams goes for the big metaphor, but doesn't quite pull it off; it doesn't quite all come together. But the man knows how to shoot a scene, and really goes to town (so to speak) with the destruction visited upon the small town. If only he weren't so enamoured with the lens flares. My gods, the lens flares. It's a stylistic tic we could do without, thanks. In Star Trek they were similarly omnipresent, but at least they made sense within the context of the film: the Enterprise was bright and shiny and new and decked out like an Apple product. I thought perhaps they might be the sort of lens flares caught on a cheap super 8 camera. Nope. It's just a thing he does now.
Lens flare aside, Super 8 is a surprisingly entertaining film. Yes, it harkens back to similar films of yesteryear either produced or directed by the Beard and it does so with nostalgia and respect while being it's own beast. I can't help but be reminded of my own times being covered in fake blood/covering others in fake blood and having a helluva great time doing so. I thought it an interesting dichotomy though that this is a movie about kids working with film (the super 8 of the title), but was projected digitally.