Directed by: J J Abrams
Starring: Joel Courtney, Elle Fanning, Riley Griffiths, Ryan Lee, Gabriel Basso, Zach Mills, Kyle Chandler and Ron Eldard
I'm a bit late writing my review of J J Abrams's latest movie, but this is because I was waiting until it was shown at my local cinema, the The Electric Picture House in Wotton-Under-Edge. I like going there because it offers the best cinema experience in the area. The picture's good, the seats are comfortable, the staff are friendly and they won't try to sell you some overpriced popcorn. And you won't get some prat using their mobile phone to send text messages while the film is showing, either.
As the film opens we see the very familiar logo of Amblin Entertainment. You know the one: it shows Eliot and ET riding their bike across the moon. This is most definitely a Steven Spielberg production, and in the simplest terms this is very much JJ Abrams's homage to the director of ET and Jaws. If you could examine this movie with a microscope, I suspect you'd be able to detect Spielberg's influence in its very genes. That influence not only elevates the film above the norm, it's also the reason for its biggest problems.
At one point, Walter Cronkite can be seen and heard on the TV discussing the Three Mile Island nuclear incident, so we can assume the film takes place in 1979. That means it's two years since Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind (still my favourite of all his films) came out. References to CE3K abound in the film: there are family scenes around the dinner table with small children wreaking havoc; there are panoramic views of a small town as power outages plunge neighbourhoods into darkness while dogs bark in the background; there's a covert operation rolling through town with a series of 18-wheelers; we see kids staging a crash with a model railway set; the military stage an "incident" to scare the public away; principal characters meet up with each other as they are being evacuated by an anonymous and sinister force. I may have misheard, but did the radio dispatcher address the power company worker sent to investigate outages as "Neary"? I thought he did, but I'd have to see the film again to be sure. If he didn't, then someone missed an opportunity for a great bit of geekery...
So - to the action. After a brief introduction at a winter funeral establishing Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) and his father Jackson (Kyle Chandler) recovering from the traumatic loss of Joe's mother, we jump forwards to the start of the summer holidays, so we're already in prime Spielberg territory. Joel's friend Charles (Riley Griffiths) is making a movie for a school competition on his Super 8 movie camera and he's intent on roping in everyone he knows to help out. As a female lead Charles has recruited Alice Dainerd (Elle Fanning) and it rapidly becomes clear that young Joel has a bit of a crush on her. They all convene at the local train station in the dead of night to film a pivotal scene, and when a mysterious freight train approaches they take the opportunity to include footage of it in the action. I loved Charles's yell of "production values!" at this point. But, needless to say, things don't go according to plan...
As with many of Spielberg's films, it's the children who are the focus of the action, who act as a force for good, and who are diametrically opposed to the majority of the grown-ups. And Abrams has not only assembled a superb cast with his young leads, he gets astonishing performances out of them. Elle Fanning's performance as Alice is truly remarkable. It's a tour-de-force work by someone who is still only 13 years old and in several scenes she completely walks off with the film. I have never seen someone so young deliver such a nuanced and finely-judged piece of work. Three scenes in particular stand out: when Alice first begins to "act" at the train station; as Joe applies zombie makeup to Alice's face for the first time; when Joe and Alice watch home movies of Joe's mother. She has a glittering career ahead of her, I am sure.
There are clear lifts from George Lucas as much as there are from Steven Spielberg. If you've ever seen American Graffiti you need look no further than the way Abrams uses the car as a symbol of empowerment (or incompetence). Both Elle Fanning and Joel Courtney get to drive - successfully - at various points in the film despite being much too young to have a driver's license. In contrast, stoner Donny and Alice's father both demonstrate their inability to control a car at crucial moments in the film. In more general terms, the principal characters in Super 8 discover their destinies over the course of the summer just as the cast do in Graffiti.
Despite the director clearly having watched a lot of Spielberg and Lucas's movies, Abrams doesn't seem to have learned much from them and the film has a number of big problems. For a start, there's little or no attention to detail or continuity and every now and again something happened that threw me out of the story and made me realise I was watching a movie. For example, as the train wreck comes to a halt at the beginning of the movie, we see that the Dainards' yellow car has been impaled by a railroad spike through the left rear wheel and is clearly immobile. But when the kids return to the car a minute or two later, the spike has gone and they are able to drive away without a problem. Other distractions for me included the predictable inclusion of a "Slusho" advert at the gas station and Noah Emmerich from The Truman Show cropping up as the bad guy. Another big distraction is the fact that the production designer appears to have given up entirely. As a 1970s period piece (it's set in 1979, remember?) the film struggles with a large number of continuity errors involving such 80s artefacts as Rubik's Cubes, the Sony Walkman and set dressings referencing a film that came out in 1986.
But the one thing that really began to piss me off as the movie continued was Abrams's obsessive use of anamorphic lens flare. It's not big, it's not clever, and any DP worth his salt should have given him a slap and told him to stop it. Once or twice in a film you might get away with it - Spielberg of course used it brilliantly in the climactic scenes of Raiders of the Lost Ark - but Super 8 is riddled with it. It's not even used to signify pivotal scenes, or the offscreen presence of some mysterious, numinous power as it was (allegedly) supposed to do in Star Trek. Abrams comes across like a trainee chef discovering paprika for the first time and throwing it into every dish he creates: after a while you're going to get very tired of the taste.
The biggest fault of the film, which is also the biggest departure from Spielberg's own approach to directing, is the level at which the action is pitched. Abrams didn't seem to be able to decide whether he was making a kids' film or a grown-up movie and he was clearly unable (unlike his producer and mentor) to do both at the same time. The film is rated as a 12A, but it includes some extremely violent scenes and in one case a death involving a considerable amount of blood.
I know Spielberg isn't averse to polishing off characters on camera - look at the opening sequence with the velociraptors being delivered in Jurassic Park, for example. The first time I saw that in the cinema it left several of the children in the audience screaming in terror to the point that their parents had to take them out of the auditorium. The difference here is difficult to express but the best I can manage is that in Spielberg's movies there was never any underlying sense of malice - rather, his message is that the Universe is generally a benevolent place. In most cases any darkness in Spielberg's films is rapidly leavened with an underlying good-naturedness. Within the world of Super 8 I was left feeling that good-naturedness is not an essential component in the grand scheme of things. The monster here is far more ambiguous than I suspect it would be if this was a Spielberg movie. If Speilberg was directing the pivotal scenes in the caves, for example, I can't imagine him choosing to reveal that the monster had been abducting local residents as potential snacks. Indeed, at that point I was expecting the abductions to be a reference to another of my favourite science fiction films, It Came From Outer Space. And with good reason: the denouement in both films takes place underground where the protagonist discovers a cavern stuffed full of advanced technology that is almost, but not quite working. The sound effects used in both movies at this point are almost identical and I am sure that wasn't a coincidence. It Came From Outer Space was made in 1953 at the height of the McCarthy era and was innovative in the way that the threat of aliens from outer space was suddenly turned around in the final reel; earlier events in the film are suddenly thrown into a completely different context and that, in my opinion, elevates it into one of the finest SF movies ever made, and it's a film that I even ended up writing a song about.
I found myself smiling as the kids in Super 8 climbed down into the cave, because I was expecting the scene to play out with the alien revealed as intelligent and benevolent and just trying to get home. It's a pretty appealing opportunity if you know the earlier film. Instead, my expectations were dashed. I was left with a strong sense of disappointment and a feeling that the film could have been so much warmer. Instead the director chose to veer into "dark and edgy" territory which I felt was inappropriate. It's this choice that reveals the film's lack of heart, and cripples it emotionally.
To sum up: this was a passable attempt by one of this generation's better directors to emulate one of cinema's all-time greats. And with assistance from the master himself, he nearly pulls it off. I think the reason that he doesn't is because of fundamental differences in the personalities of the two directors and also, perhaps, because we've grown more cynical and disillusioned since the time the movie attempts to portray.
Not everyone can go back to those halcyon childhood days, it seems.
Chris's rating: Three and a half Stars