Steven Spielberg writes a love letter to his own films of the 80s in new alien action adventure Super 8. It concerns a group of early-teenage friends, trying to make a zombie film in 1979 smalltown America on their eponymous handheld camera. One night, whilst shooting at the local train station, they witness a catastrophic train derailment caused by one of their teachers driving on to the track. In the chaos, it’s clear that something that was on the train makes an escape into the surrounding forest (though not clear exactly what), and, soon afterwards, strange phenomena begin to materialise, and people start to go missing. Between trying to find out what’s going on, completing the film and exploring a burgeoning relationship with new friend Alice (Elle Fanning), Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) is also trying to come to terms with the loss of his mother in an unfortunate accident in the recent past.
If this sounds like a complex, multi-threaded plot, you’re half right. Though it might be (writer/director) JJ Abrams’s natural instinct to write many different stories and layer them on top of each other (see his flagship TV show Lost), the marriage of (producer) Steven Spielberg and another big-ego big-hitter that worked so poorly in the last Indiana Jones film (and believe me, whatever else they do with the franchise from now on, that certainly was the last Indiana Jones film) is instead here a huge success. Where Abrams forces the narrative into a more sprawling story, the hand of Spielberg can be felt keeping all the plot threads on a steady course. Where Spielberg brings a natural PG-13 sensibility and eye for child-attuned characterisation, Abrams expands the core cast to an ensemble without overly complicating.
To this collaboration, they both bring an understanding (Abrams from Cloverfield, Spielberg from Jaws) that the best way to keep a monster scary is to show it fleetingly, if at all, for the most part of the film; a move which really works to keep the suspense and intrigue up. The need to keep the rating down is, of course, a consideration too, but one that proves, as if it weren’t already known, that sometimes restriction, rather than freedom, can lead to some of the most interesting and original decisions. However, the fact that they have the resources of ILM behind them means that, when they do want to show the audience a spectacle, it’s pretty fucking spectacular: one scene of note is the train crash itself, where the film shows Michael Bay how to make everything on screen blow up without it seeming over the top.
As for the performances, Elle Fanning is scarily good (in my opinion the best child actor since her older sister Dakota, which is no mean feat), to the point that it does occasionally show up her fellow tween co-stars (the cracking voices of ill-timed puberty not helping to endear them). No other actor, including the adults, have the same impact on screen as she does, to the point where she not only steals every scene she’s in, but makes the whole production seem a bit flat when she’s not there. Despite spirited commitment and natural believability, especially between on-screen best friends Joe and Charles (Riley Griffiths), I couldn’t help feeling that the movie would have been better with Fanning as the lead.
Unfortunately, as good as the film is (and it is), I don’t think it’s likely to stick in the collective conscious for very long. As a child-accessible (if not straight-up child-focused) live action film that focuses equally on themes of bereavement, friendship and horror, it’s competing for attention alongside some properties that will be given a hell of a lot more promotion, for pretty obvious reasons. It’s sad to suspect that the only reason it has been made in the first place is the weight of not one, but two huge Hollywood names behind it. One need look no further than the painfully-obvious merchandise cash-in that is Cars 2 to see that acting, directing, or even story are secondary to the ability to sell an action figure, video game, storybook, happy meal and duvet cover with the main characters on, and even Spielberg doesn’t have enough pull to convince them to start producing tie-in retro Super 8 videocameras: or does he?
In terms of the story, it is comprised almost entirely of bits from other (mostly Spielberg-related) films. The camaraderie and interplay between the kids is almost a direct cross between Stand by Me and the Spielberg-penned kids classic The Goonies, the monster owes much to Abrams’s Cloverfield, the setting and world borrows from the Spielberg-executive-produced The Lovely Bones and the story is equal parts ET, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and the kids-against-the-world idea of Gremlins. That said, it would be unfair to call it unoriginal, as the various elements are pulled together in what feels like a unique and fresh whole, making this more like a covers album of classic tracks, rather than a karaoke mashup. In a world where remakes of 80s classics are a dime a dozen, the commitment towards an ostensibly original premise should be lauded wherever it occurs: after all, if you’re going to copy someone, you could do a lot worse than Spielberg’s work from the 80s.
The combination of top quality production, strong story and solid performances make Super 8 nothing short of the most kick-ass, non-pandering, entertaining and enlightening action film any 10-13 year old is going to see so far this year, with a good deal to keep adults engaged at the same time.
The finished film the kids put together (stay for the credits) isn’t the worst zombie film I’ve ever seen either