review written by Andrei Sipos on the 14th of August 2011
Much like everything else in this world, the industry of film is constantly experiencing change, with big-budget productions becoming more and more indistinguishable from each other as the art side of filmmaking is slowly getting taken over by the marketing side. Going into a contemporary major studio release, one learns not to expect substantial character development or a particularly intricate storyline on account of the fact it’s become a habit for such cinematic elements to be given up in favour of greater entertainment value achieved through means of fast-paced action and special effects ridden visual flair.
Of course, such changes in large-scale filmmaking do not give off an entirely negative influence, as we have seen directors such as Christopher Nolan and James Cameron deliver some truly breathtaking cinematic experiences with films built mostly within Hollywood’s rigid parameters. Nevertheless, there comes a point in time when too much of the same thing starts to become a tiresome exercise for the viewer, and along with this occurrence usually arises the desire to return to a time in cinema when filmmakers were given more freedom of creativity, and, as a consequence, movies were able to express the kind of passion and novelty that seems to be mostly lost nowadays.
Backed up by producer Steven Spielberg, director J.J. Abrams (who last acted as director on the 2009 universally praised Star Trek) looks to rekindle such a time with his latest directorial effort, Super 8. Bearing a title as secretive as its main plotline, Super 8 is a bold homage to the Spielberg directed sci-fi and adventure films of the 70s and 80s, featuring everything from a mysterious creature and kids running around town playing detective to lens flares and a fittingly evocative score.
Taking place during the late 70s in a small American town, the film begins with a bittersweet introduction of our 13-year-old protagonist, the grieving Joe Lamb (played by Joel Courtney). Having recently experienced the loss of his mother and becoming more disconnected with his sorrowful father, a deputy at the local police station, Joe finds solace within his group of more or less same-aged friends, with whom he goes around shooting a low-budged zombie film. Acting as the make-up artist, Joe makes sure the living dead look as presentable as possible, while his slightly tubby best friend Charles (portrayed by a truly scene-stealing Riley Griffiths) goes about directing as if he was the next Orson Welles.
With help from the 14-year-old Alice Dainard, who agrees to play the role of the love interest in the ambitious film project as well as illegally providing means of transport through her father’s muscle car, the kids manage to sneak out at night and head over to a nearby train station in order to film a scene for the movie. One thing leads to another and Joe and the rest end up witnessing a catastrophic train crash, all the while the audience gets to witness one of the most spectacular railroad disaster sequences in the history of cinema.
Following the alarming accident, the U.S. Air Force swiftly arrives at the scene, doing its best to keep whatever cargo that train was carrying hidden from public view. However, as strange events start happening around town and eerie sounds begin to cover the stillness in the dead of night, the kids begin to realise that an escaped creature is lurking nearby. As a whole, Super 8 seems to be dividing its focus between two notions: the Spielbergian themes of childhood adventure and mystery, and the monster slash disaster genre. The former dominates the first part of the movie while the latter gradually takes over as the storyline progresses.
Based on an original screenplay written by J.J. Abrams, Super 8 shines in terms of dialogue, delivering witty remarks and memorable lines along the way and mixing in just the right amount of humour to make plot all the more enjoyable without disrupting its fluidity. The interactions between the teen characters are surprisingly convincing and stand out especially when compared to many other modern age films that seem to fall in a state of complete oblivion when it comes to underage communication. Despite the solid dialogue and credible characters, Abrams seems to be stuck during the third act, concluding an otherwise exceptional motion picture with a messy climax that completely goes against the film’s initial principles.
The same alien monster element that seemed to have worked so well for the J.J. Abrams produced ‘Cloverfield’ is basically the sole purpose behind Super 8 not reaching its full potential. Perhaps I am alone on this matter, but everything about the extra-terrestrial creature felt wrong to me. It failed to emit originality through its appearance, the CGI looked terrible, and whatever emotional bond and moral message Abrams was trying to arouse through it fell completely flat with the inclusion of scenes depicting the creature feeding on human flesh and unsympathetically throwing people around and ripping them to shreds.
The cast of Super 8 shines. Joel Courtney delivers a breakthrough performance in the leading role, demonstrating a good capability of carrying the film by displaying an impressive range of emotions. Elle Fanning is also striking in her role, and a few scenes give her the opportunity to really show off her theatrical skills and have viewers torn between which one of the Fanning sisters shows more promise in terms of the next big thing in Hollywood. Another noteworthy performance is that of Riley Griffiths as Joe’s best pal and would-be director, whose line delivery and charisma steals the show, despite this role being his very first in a feature film.
The adult actors also do a fairly good job, though it becomes clear as early as five minutes in that the youngsters take the spotlight this time around. Giving his teen cast the opportunity to make an impression on the audience is perhaps J.J. Abrams’ greatest accomplishment in Super 8, and even though it’s far from his only one, the misfires he causes along the way ultimately prove themselves too crucial to be ignored. That being said, Super 8 remains a good film and—more importantly—a very memorable one at that. It gets closer to the ‘good old days’ than any other recent motion picture has, but in the end, it doesn’t quite get there. Nostalgic viewers should greatly appreciate it regardless.