JJ Abrams, creator of Alias and Lost, pays homage to the films of his mentor Steven Spielberg with a terrific sci-fi mystery that throws together elements of Close Encounters, ET and The Goonies to create a movie with the look and feel, and something of the spirit, of the older director in his late-70s and early-80s heyday.
Super 8 even takes place in a typically Spielbergian small-town setting, an Ohio steel-town in 1979. Here a bunch of young kids are making a zombie movie on the film stock of the title, the format on which many directors, including the teenage Abrams, cut their filmmaking teeth in pre-video days. Significantly, Abrams and his friend Matt Reeves (who went on to direct the Abrams-produced Cloverfield), got their break into the industry as 15-year-olds when they were hired on the back of their Super 8 shorts to cut together the 8mm movies that Spielberg had himself made as a kid.
The film’s young hero, Joel Courtney’s 12-year-old Joe Lamb, isn’t the director of the monster flick – that’s tubby know-it-all Charles (Riley Griffiths) – but he’s immersed himself in his friend’s project as a way of coping with the recent loss of his mother in a steel-mill accident; a tragedy that’s deftly conveyed by Abrams in the film’s wordless opening shots.
The other members of the zombie film’s cast and crew include goofy pyromaniac Cary (Ryan Lee) and tomboyish Alice (Elle Fanning), the group’s sole girl, on whom Joe soon develops a crush. Slightly older than the others and much more mature, she’s another motherless child. But whereas Joe’s father is the responsible local police deputy, Alice’s dad is a troubled, boozy misfit. There’s bad feeling between the two adults, a rancour that has significant repercussions later on.
What kicks off the plot, however, is a devastating train crash, witnessed at terrifyingly close quarters by the youngsters while they are shooting their movie one night. What was the train carrying? Whatever it was, the military are soon swarming over the site and strange things start happening, including the sudden disappearance of all the town’s dogs.
At first, the young filmmakers take advantage of the crash and its aftermath to add ‘production value’ to their movie: shooting scenes that place the wrecked train or milling soldiers in the background. Yet as the crisis intensifies, imperilling the whole town, it’s the kids who are the first to grasp what’s really going on and who prove instrumental in saving the day.
Truth be told, the film’s resolution is a tad disappointing. Abrams sets up the intrigue brilliantly and the film’s production value is sensational – the train crash will have you diving for cover beneath your cinema seat. But, as he’s proved before in his career, he has problems wrapping up his mysteries. Remember how Lost got lost?
But the film’s first half is tremendous. If Abrams can’t sustain the magic, at least he’s created some in the first place. And with its nostalgic period setting, stunning special effects and charming performances from the young leads (particularly Fanning), Super 8 is the best movie Spielberg never made.
On general release from 5th August.