At an alarming rate, summer blockbusters are unwittingly reminding the public how underprivileged their cinema-going generation is. Michael Bay crassly ramps up the phwoar factor, cerebral plots are scarce and the fun is in danger of being sapped out of a cinema outing. Fortunately, JJ Abrams is a sentimental kinda guy.
Another to emerge from Steven Spielberg’s talent pool, Abrams resuscitated Star Trek’s warp factor in 2009 to endearing effect and has overseen small-screen success via Alias and Lost as well as producing the innovative accomplishment that was Cloverfield. But at heart his projects set out to entertain, and with his third cinematic effort, Super 8, he offers a welcome tonic from the overblown tedium of CGI.
When six high-schoolers set out to make a zombie film during the summer semester with the titular camera, they witness a mysterious train accident which subsequently invites an overwhelming military presence in an attempt to reassure, or rather cover-up, the truth behind the wreckage. But Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) knows that this crash was no accident, and soon the town’s dogs are absconding and people are vanishing. And the town’s only evidence may or may not lie within the damaged Super 8 camera.
Inevitably, this film has drawn comparisons with ET, but rather than do it a disservice it aids the film. It plays out like a nostalgic trip down memory lane to unforgettable cinematic summers when an audience was enthralled by spectacles such as Jaws, Star Wars, Close Encounters and the lovable Extra-Terrestrial. Setting the film in 1979 only fuels the tension and augments the complexities of situations that arise, whilst also sparing a summer blockbuster of pretensions and shameless product placement.
The train crash itself is a rare treat of CGI managing to be mesmerising (mercifully, in 2-D). Breathtakingly breakneck and bold by placing youths in life-threatening danger, it is an exhilarating tour de force of sound effects and cinematic carnage.
The Spielberg influence is however most palpable courtesy of the talented child actors. Courtney and the ethereal Elle Fanning sharing humour and emotion beautifully and are simultaneously supported by the convincingly bossy Riley Griffiths and the humorously unhinged Ryan Lee. The dialogue and teasing amongst the super six never teeters on the unnatural and their camaraderie should charm viewers of all generations.
Yet it is another Spielberg hallmark, the absent parent, in which Super 8 is most refreshing. The estranged relationship between Joe and recently-bereaved widower Kyle Chandler encompasses the misunderstanding of youth and post-deceased uncertainty with confrontational gusto. It shows how instrumental and innovative it can be to draw on one’s experiences – something Spielberg continues to do.
Cynics will accuse Super 8 of lacking originality and not pushing the envelope, but it’s a defunct argument – Abrams effectively acknowledges this via the familiar storyline and the assistance of his producer. And in an unremarkable summer, he has assembled a love-letter of a film which reminds us that there are visionaries out there who do make ‘em like they used to.