PARAMOUNT: A heady blend of small town drama, sci-fi, and the sweet pangs of first love, J.J. Abrams' new film follows firmly in the footsteps of The Goonies and ET.
The latest feature from writer/director J.J. Abrams (Lost
, Star Trek
) is a loving tribute to the films of the late Seventies and early Eighties, and simultaneously a finely-tuned and contemporary blend of sci-fi, drama, and coming of age tropes.
In the small town of Lillian, Ohio in 1979, 12 year old Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) is mourning his mother’s recent death. His father, Deputy Sherriff Jackson Lamb (Kyle Chandler) is withdrawn and angry; barely dealing with his own grief let alone able to care for and console a horror movie-obsessed son.
Joe’s nerdy friends – including plump, would-be filmmaker Charles (Riley Griffiths) and the budding pyromanic Cary (Ryan Lee) – are a particular cause of friction between father and son.
When Charles enlists 14 year old Alice (Elle Fanning) into the film they’re shooting on a Super 8 camera, the first flames of romance are fanned into existence between Joe and the young ingénue – only to be imperilled by a late night train crash that the kids are the only witnesses to. But the crash was no accident: Joe witnessed a car drive onto the train tracks, causing the spectacular derailment; a car driven by their high school science teacher, Dr Woodward (Glynn Turman).
Badly injured, Woodward warns the kids not to tell anyone what they’ve seen: “They will kill you,” he gasps. “Do not speak of this or else you and your parents will die.”
Within minutes the military have swarmed onto the scene, and over successive days, as first animals then people begin to disappear, Joe and his friends realise that something has escaped from the train.
It’s from this point, its characters established and its multiple subplots laid out, that Super 8 really kicks into gear. No one element dominates, with Abrams giving just as much attention to the film’s exploration of fractured parent-child relationships, fractious friendships and fledgling first loves as to its monster-movie central plot.
Like the young protagonists in Rob Reiner’s Stand By Me (1986), the main characters in Super 8 are in their last days of innocence before puberty sends them raging into adolescence. Their precarious position, on the cusp between childhood and their teenage years, means a very specific – and deliberate – tone permeates the film; an awareness that something threatening, powerful, and irresistible is lurking just out of sight.
This ‘puberty-as-monster’ subplot is by no means original – it’s a key theme of The Lost Boys (1987) for example – but here it’s played out subtly, more as a mood or a motif than as an overt theme of the film. Other films Super 8 references include The Goonies (1985) and E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial (1982), but while the film is clearly crafted as a homage to the movies of Abrams’ childhood, it is simultaneously contemporary and engaging, playing to the sensibilities of modern 12-14 year olds as much as to their nostalgic parents.
Modern references abound – such as a scene evoking post 9/11 New York, when Joe posts a message about his missing dog on a local notice board, only for the camera to pan back and reveal his flyer is just one among dozens – alongside obvious homages to even earlier horror films, most notably Christian Nyby’s Cold War classic, The Thing From Another World (1951).
Performances are strong – particularly Elle Fanning, who is exceptional – and the film looks fantastic, though Abrams still can’t seem to resist an excess of lens flare in several key scenes, which some will find distracting. The film’s ending borders on the mawkish, but just holds back, while its evocation of period and obvious delight in referencing its cinematic forbears sometimes feels a touch contrived, and consequently occasionally distances the viewer instead of allowing one to be swept up in the drama.
These concerns aside, Super 8 is highly recommended; a thrilling, engaging and genuinely fun sci-fi coming-of-age adventure that both children and adults can enjoy together.
RATING: Four stars
Written & directed by J.J. Abrams
Producer: Steven Spielberg
Original Music: Michael Giacchino
Cinematography: Larry Fong
Film Editing: Maryann Brandon & Mary Jo Markey
Production Design: Martin Whist
Visual Effects Supervisors: Kim Libreri, Dennis Murren & Russell Earl
Cast: Kyle Chandler, Elle Fanning, Joel Courtney, Gabriel Basso, Noah Emmerich, Ron Eldard, Riley Griffiths, Ryan Lee, Zach Mills, Glynn Turman
USA, 2011, 112 mins
Super 8 opens nationally June 8