In the summer of 1979 a group of friends in a small Ohio town witness a huge train crash whilst making a zombie film on Super 8. As strange events and disappearances start occurring in and around town, they begin to investigate the phenomena, and quickly come to suspect that the train crash and its mysterious cargo are key to whatever is happening to their home.
I caught SUPER 8 a few days back, yet decided to hold out on my review for a very specific reason. I believe that an emotional reaction to a film is every bit as relevant as an intellectual response, and reviews coming from either place are equally valid, and both have their merits. I try to balance the two, but its often hard to gain perspective on things when your emotions are in full control. I remember viewing BRAVEHEART for the first time and being an absolute wreck by the films end. Its themes and messages hit me hard, and being a Scotsman, it was close to the bone; yet in retrospect its a pretty silly movie. With some seriously dopey plot strands and ridiculous dialogue. Had I reviewed back then, I'd have been slightly embarrassed looking back on my immediate thoughts. I felt the same risk was inherent in reviewing SUPER 8.
See, I have an investment in this type of film. I grew up with THE GOONIES, MONSTER SQUAD, THE EXPLORERS and ET. These films have a place in my heart and in my memories. In many ways the films we experience as children shape the people we become. They become more than just cinematic experience, they become intertwined with our personal journey, and with our most cherished memories. For me, SUPER 8 felt exactly like one of those classics. In essence, watching the film was akin to travelling through time. I was a kid again. It effortlessly inspired wonder and magic in me, in the same way the early works of Spielberg and Dante did for a whole generation. With this in mind, I wanted to review the film from an unbiased, critical standpoint, without the haze of nostalgia. Or at least with the nostalgia tempered.
Fast forward a few days, and what of SUPER 8? How does it stand up as a work of its own, free from its brethren and the glow of memory? The answer is, very well. JJ Abrams has somehow managed to craft a cinematic experience that blends so many genres, and spins so many plates simultaneously, that's its a damn miracle the whole enterprise didn't derail spectacularly straight out the gates. Its a family friendly film, yet its very intense. Its a children's movie yet its maturity is evident in every frame, and in every word of its much considered dialogue. It's a Horror film that enchants as much as it scares. SUPER 8 is a whole mess of idea's, imagery and emotion. Yet not for one second does the film feel overstretched, or cluttered. All the plot strands, all the themes and all the character arcs come full circle, somehow. And it all feels so effortless.
To be fair, Abrams had one hell of a magic kit here to work with. His producer is Steven Spielberg himself. Sure, the guy may not have made any films with real magic for some time, but he clearly knows how to recognise and nurture these qualities in others. Abrams is also coming off the huge success of CLOVERFIELD, and has been given pretty much free reign to run with his imagination. His script is perfectly balanced between coming of age drama, Horror/Sci-Fi crossover and mystery/adventure romp. And his cast are just brilliant. All the kids put in solid, believable and likable performances. They never feel contrived and thankfully, the script is never condescending towards its young characters. The disparate gang of filmmakers that comprise the core cast are rounded, intelligent and authentic portrayals of children on the cusp of puberty. These are kids who are right on the edge of that terrible realisation that the world is a whole lot darker and more cruel than Nickelodeon promised them it would be. Some of them have already crossed that line, and are fighting to hold onto innocence as best they can.
As the film opens, we're attending the funeral of our central kids Mother, and she hasn't died easy. His world has been torn apart just as we enter, and the dark tone of the opening moments permeates the whole show.The object of our young hero's affection is the most sought after girl in class, yet its soon revealed that her home life is far from pretty or in any way glamorous. With her Mother abandoning both herself and her father, she's had to assume a far more mature role than her years should allow, as her father sinks into self pity and alcoholism. The 'fat kid', is the leader of the group instead of the object of mirth, as is usually (sadly) the case in these movies. And while driven, manipulative and often overpowering, (he's the film within the films director, after all), he's more than aware of his weight problem, and is dealing with loneliness in whatever way he can. In one tender and telling scene, he explains to a friend that his mum says its only baby fat he's carrying, clearly trying to convince himself more than anyone else. Its this depth and respect for character that holds SUPER 8 together.
The film is essentially a monster movie though. A good old fashioned creature feature, that just happens to invest real emotion in its characters. And when I say old fashioned, I MEAN old fashioned. Remember in the golden days of this films type, the creature would only be glimpsed for the greater part of the movie? A tentacle here a footprint there? Well, like CLOVERFIELD, Abrams has no qualms about keeping his beast under wraps, and I respect that, as I'm sure many others will. It may, of course, alienate a sizable portion of the audience in today's 'wham bam' zero intelligence climate. But I really hope it finds it fans outside critical circles. Go in expecting a balls to the wall special effects fest, and you'll leave deflated. Go in expected a very mature look at childhood set within a slow burning mystery thriller, and you'll be walking with a spring in your step when its all said and done.
The monster is great, and the set pieces are awesome, (especially the crash that heralds in the stories main conceit), but its the attention to story and character nuance that elevate SUPER 8. Were I to compare this film to any other, it would have to be STAND BY ME. Both films deal with loss, and with the relationship, or lack of, between parent and child. And both understand that children have a hell of a lot to deal with, growing up in this world.
Its quite a heavy load for a group of inexperienced young actors to bear, yet bear it they do, with aplomb. Elle Fanning proves that her sisters creepily mature understanding of acting is a family trait, by giving a warm, pained performance as Alice, and Joel Courtney as Joe Lamb is self assured and believable as the lead. The other kids are great too. Light hearted and fun loving future arsonist, Cary, is played well by Ryan Lee, and Riley Griffiths just about steals the whole movie as wannabe film director, Charles. On the grown up side of things, Kyle Chandler is great as Joe's somewhat distant, heartbroken father, and the always reliable Ron Eldard brings real sadness and desperation to his portrayal of Alice's messed up old man. Without such a strong cast the film would have fallen apart, instead they help it soar.
So there you have it. After days of consideration, I'm of the belief that SUPER 8 is a huge success artistically. From the perspective of a now 35 year old 80's kid, its wonderful to see a film of this type again. More than that though, its just a great feeling to watch a potential blockbuster that treats its audience and its subject with respect, and places story and the human condition above CGI, toy sales and explosions. Some will hate it for that very reason, I'm sure. Its their loss.
How will be it be received by today's generation? Will it be looked upon with as much love as THE GOONIES is, in the hearts of today's children? The answers to these questions are hard to quantify. Yes, the film is very well made, and perfectly captures the 80's vibe it's so clearly aiming for, but are today's kids hungry for a thoughtful, paced and mature work with only a handful of important special effects sequences? TRANSFORMERS 3 is currently melting the braincells of audiences worldwide with its mindless explosions, ridiculous characters and general lack of anything even remotely resembling plot, suspense, depth or message. I'm not sure today's multiplex crowd will embrace this film. I hope they will. I really do. I'm gonna try and believe in the kids just a much as SUPER 8 does.
As for me, its already claimed it rightful place in my memory bank beside the 80's classics it emulates so well. Feels strange to watch a film as an adult and feel like you've known it all your life. yet that's the effect SUPER 8 can have on some, and has on me. Go see it, and take your kids, then lecture them afterwards about how a REAL summer movie is done.
9.5 80's Kids out of 10