Super 8

The creator of TV series Lost, producer of monster-movie Cloverfield and director of sci-fi reboot Star Trek JJ Abrams was doing OK just being JJ Abrams but for Super 8 he has written and directed a film his mentor and producer Steven Spielberg would have been proud of; an end-of-childhood adventure with supernatural touches that has the master’s imprint all over it.

The title derives from the small-gauge film format that was popular in the time before video and digital cameras. As a child, Spielberg made 8mm films with his friends in the streets and fields around his home town in Arizona. Firelight, the last of these amateur films, would be reused twenty years later as the beginnings of Close Encounters of the 3rd Kind and the story of its production, with a borrowed camera and home-made special effects, seems to have inspired the first section of Abrams’ story.

Set in the suburban homes of a rural Ohio town in the late 1970s, Super 8 opens as 12 year-old Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) is helping his excitable best friend Charles (Riley Griffiths) to make a zombie movie for a local film festival. With Charles as director and Joe handling make-up and special effects, the two enlist their friends, including new-recruit Alice (Elle Fanning) to help however they can; acting, holding a microphone, setting off pyrotechnics or stirring buckets of fake blood. Late one night, having snuck out of their respective houses, the kids are filming surreptitiously at an abandoned train station when a truck veers onto the tracks and causes a spectacular train crash. In the midst of the chaos, something escapes from a shattered freight trailer. Unnoticed by the fleeing kids but recorded on their camera, whatever it is escapes into the fields.

To say much more would spoil Super 8’s carefully-laid surprise but what follows will not startle those who have seen the films from which Abrams has spliced his cinematic DNA: E.T., Close Encounters and Richard Donner’s Spielberg-produced children’s classic The Goonies. The kids are so preoccupied with making their zombie movie they barely notice the uncanny things happening in the grown-up real world. We see a flash of Walter Cronkite on the evening news, talking about the nuclear disaster at Three Mile Island. Every dog in the town has vanished, cars and machines are acting strangely and a troop of soldiers (led by Noah Emmerich’s blank-faced sergeant) have quietly established a cordon around the town.

Abrams is telling his own story, from his own screenplay, but Super 8 is a hybrid; a combination of coming-of-age drama, comedy and science-fiction. It touches up against Spielberg’s favourite themes of broken family dynamics, suburban boredom and the feeling that, behind the closed doors of a small town, there are adult stories that remain secret and untold. There is a palpable sense of nostalgia here, not only for the time and place but for the kind of films American directors were making at the time; films that used the embryonic effects technologies to bolster their stories and bring life to their imaginations, rather than as a hammer to bludgeon audiences into submission. It’s no accident that Super 8 eschews the feeble, eye-straining attractions of 3D.

The movie is at its best when Abrams, like Spielberg, distils the innocence and enthusiasm of childhood into short, pithy scenes, particularly in the early set pieces when the pubescent protagonists are given the space to interact. There is a very clever use of the kid’s film-within-a-film, as the cash-strapped youngsters employ the ‘real-life’ movie that’s happening around them as a backdrop for their own fictional one. Later, Abrams attempts to blend the emotional and the fantastical into a seamless whole but the two elements of the story seem to float past one another, just failing to connect. His mostly young and unknown cast are uniformly superb, with Fanning in particular striking the right note of gumption and vulnerability, but the bonds that tie them all together feel more contrived than considered.

The pleasures to be found in Super 8 might be deliberately familiar, but they are robust enough to be handed down to a new generation. For his own part, Spielberg has two films set for release this year, his first animation The Adventures of TinTin, based on Belgian comic book author Hergé’s much-loved books and WWI drama War Horse, from the children’s novel by Michael Morpurgo. Spielberg has nothing left to prove but it will nevertheless be interesting to see if the real thing can match his imitator.

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