J.J. Abrams | 112 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13
Before he started star warring and between bouts of star trekking, director J.J. Abrams teamed up with producer Steven Spielberg for this homage to the kind of movies Spielberg produced in the ’80s. Those films have endured down the decades; I’m not sure Super 8 endured as far as Abrams’ next
lens flare showcase film. Which is a little bit of a shame because, by being Abrams’ most personal film, it may also be his best.
Set in the summer of 1979, the film follows a group of teenage boys making a zombie film, in particular Joe (Joel Courtney), whose mother died a couple of months earlier in an industrial accident. For their film’s love interest, the guys enlist Alice (Elle Fanning) and Joe begins to grow close to her, despite his dad (Kyle Chandler) blaming her dad for the death of Joe’s mother. While shooting a scene late at night, the kids witness a massive train crash, caused by their science teacher. With his dying words he warns them not to tell anyone what they witnessed. As the military descend on the wreckage and odd things begin to happen around the town, it becomes clear the train was transporting something very strange…
How much all this achieves Abrams’ goal of feeling like a genuine Amblin movie, I’m not sure. On the surface, not that much: the visual style is all too modern, not to mention the CGI. But, tonally, there is something there, which has somehow survived being filtered through the filmmaking process and made its way into the finished product — it’s a bit of that spirit of adventure; the kind of storyline and characters; and, actually, the way it holds back a little on the effects work. Several people cite The Goonies when talking about it, which just reminds me that I really ought to get round to seeing that. (The fact it’s absolutely loved by some, while increasingly I hear people bravely sticking their heads over the parapet to say, “it’s not really that good, you know”, intrigues me rather.)
Unfortunately, the longer the film goes on the more it runs away with itself, as characters dash back and forth all over the place, sometimes in credibility-stretching fashion (we never do see how a group of kids manage to escape a heavily-guarded military base and drive back to an evacuated and blockaded town). The adults stumble through the story to little dramatic effect; Joe’s dad even has to be secretly locked up for a good chunk of the film (with no other characters noticing his disappearance) so that his storyline can be paused until he’s wheeled out for his part in the climax. The grown-ups do serve a role — giving us a perspective on events that the kids lack, and being tied to the emotional arcs of the leads — but it wouldn’t have harmed anything to limit them to those functions, rather than trying to half-heartedly give them stories of their own.
The kids are quite likeable in their way, especially Courtney and Fanning, who have enough chemistry to keep their interactions the most engaging aspect of the film. In fact, if Abrams wasn’t the kind of filmmaker he is, an indie-ish real-world take on Super 8’s dramatic storyline (a bunch of friends making a short film over the summer holidays, also with all the other grounded emotional aspects of the movie) might’ve made for an even more effective, enjoyable film. (Somewhat ironically, it seems this was Abrams’ original intention: according to IMDb, his two ideas for a follow-up to Mission: Impossible III were a coming-of-age story or an alien-on-the-loose adventure. Presumably getting sidetracked into Star Trek gave him the time to decide to combine them.)
In some respects, the kids’ short film (which plays during the end credits) encapsulates the whole movie: a semi-thought-through SF/F plot, a tacked on emotional arc, the apexes of both tied together in the climax, and a couple of sometimes-shoehorned effects set pieces along the way. Yet for all that, it does enough right that I’d quite like to see Abrams attempt more work along these lines.
J.J. Abrams’ most recent film, a little movie you’ve probably not heard of about something-or-other waking up (I forget the details), is out on DVD & Blu-ray in the UK today.