There's production value but no spoilers!
Already being proclaimed in many quarters, and indeed on many posters here in the UK, as 'the best blockbuster of the summer', Super 8 comes to us with a considerable weight of expectation in tow. Many are hailing it as a modern great, a Goonies or a Gremlins for our times. However the chorus of praise has not been universal; a quick trip to IMDB will show you a considerable numbers of reviewers having an Emperor's New Clothes moment. There's a host of few star reviews out there pressing charges of being derivative and careening through the plot holes on the wings of indignation.
So then is Super 8 a welcome return to the family friendly magic of the legendary '80s blockbusters; a perfect summer storm generated by the meeting of two generations of masters of cinematic fantasy? Or is just Abrams plagiarising all those classic movies that bear Spielberg's name with the old boy's blessing?
Well firstly, to lay my cards on the table, I'm not in the Abrams is God camp - while I greatly enjoy his Star Trek reboot and Fringe, Alias never really grabbed me and Lost, well, lost me somewhere in the morass of flashbacks in Season 2. And I've a bag of similar mixed reactions with Mr Spielberg's oeuvre - obviously Jaws and Raiders of the Lost Ark are classics, but the last time I attempted to rewatch ET, I ended up thrashing about on the floor with a bad case of saccharine poisoning. Now, to be clear I'm not saying either are necessarily patchy in terms of quality, more that what they produce doesn't always suit my tastes. And so, despite it's pedigree, Super 8 wasn't guaranteed an instant pass from me.
Now,for those of you who don't know, the plot goes something like this. A bunch of kids in one of those archetypal small American towns, are making a zombie movie and while out filming, they witness a spectacular train crash. However if all that weren't exciting enough, there was a mystery cargo aboard which escapes and very soon the little town of Lillian is best by twin plagues of weird goings-on and unhelpful US Air Force troops. I'm sure you can all guess the kind of thing that was lurking in the sealed crate, and equally it's not a huge spoilers to tell you that the kids investigate and of course end up saving the day. A classic scenario or clichéd cobblers?
Well, let's cut to the chase here, I really enjoyed this movie; it's heaps of fun and boasts many merits - more of which later. However, is the praise/buzz/hype (delete as personal cynicism about blockbusters deems applicable) garnered by Super 8 justified? Well, yes and no - it is a very fine movie in many respects but there are some weaknesses that mean it just misses the classic mark for me.
It breaks down like this. Firstly, despite numerous comparisons to The Goonies and Explorers, make no mistake this isn't a tale of a band of kids, it's really one boy's story, Joe played by Joel Courtney. Now many of the negative reviews point out that most of the band of young movie makers have paper-thin characters, but in fairness if you accept that this is not a gang of kids tale, this is less of a problem. Firstly, because we are seeing the story unfold through Joe's eyes and secondly because the peers he has the closest ties to to Charles (Riley Griffiths) and Alice (Elle Fanning) are decently fleshed out.
And while we're challenging the received wisdom, let deal with the accusations of being unoriginal. Now the lazy way to sum up this movie is to slap a label on it marked 'Cloverfield Meets ET' and walk away smugly whistling. Now superficially that all looks very big and clever but on poking it with sharps stick this observation very quickly deflates leaving the air full of the unpleasant whiff of smart arsery. For the crashed train train doesn't contain a cute secret pal from outer space or a giant beast that stomps the town Godzilla style. The only real parallels with Cloverfield are we only see glimpses of the cargo until the final act and Abrams name is prominent on the credits and similarly it only really resembles ET in the fact that we have Spielberg's name and some common scifi tropes. In terms of tone and narrative direction, Super 8 is very different to either of these movies.
Now armchair witticisms masquerading as critical opinion aside, there are more credible accusations that Super 8 is just a patchwork of elements drawn from The Goonies, ET, Explorers, Gremlins, Close Encounters, Poltergeist etc. And yes there is some truth in these claims - films buffs can have a field day identifying cinematic ancestors for many scenes and elements of Super 8. However if you;re going to play this game properly and intelligently, you have to look back further than the 1980s and widen your trope taxonomy further than just movies. And if you do, you'll discover firstly that yes, Abrams is drawing alot we've seen done before in all those well loved '80s flicks. However you'll also find that Spielberg, Zemeckis and Dante weren't exactly dealing with original concepts in the first place - all three directors were drawing upon their own childhood favourites - from TV, comics and books as well as movies. The Goonies are just the 80s generation of a long line of adventuring kids such as the Hardy Boys, the Famous Five, the 3 Investigators - which stretches back to the Bastable family of E.Nesbit and the birth of children's literature.
Gremlins is firmly in the tradition of '50s B-movies like The Blob and Invasion of the Saucer Men in which small towns are overrun by monsters but vanquished by teenager power. And as for ET, there are countless stories of small children who make friends with an otherworldly being, be it an alien, monster, faerie or ghost - for example Spielberg's fable is very similar to Raymond Brigg's The Snowman, which also includes magical flying sequences and a tear jerking ending. Indeed originally the short animated feature, now a Christmas TV classic, was going to be shown in cinemas as a supporting feature for ET until someone spotted that the storylines where uncomfortably similar and didn't want audiences thinking that the genius Spielberg had ripped off Brigg's book and just made it's icy hero a talking turd with special light-up action (TM) who turned out to be Space-Jesus.
The simple fact is that all those directors of 80's classics were just repacking even then very elderly tropes and the fact they they a) did it well and b) gained huge box office success and a place in popular memory still doesn't make them creators of original concepts. And even in terms of directorial craft, they were pulling on age old Hollywood story telling techniques. So then if we are excusing Spielberg and co. from plundering their childhoods for both concepts and craft, then it seems churlish of beating Abrams with that stick.
Yes, it's soaked in nostalgia, but we forget that all those '80s classics were too. Essentially Super 8 is drawing on a collection of age old tropes and classic techniques of screen story telling just as much as Spielberg, Zemeckis, Dante and Lucas were - the different is that his immediate reference points in the past are far more better remembered by the general audience than the trashy '50s drive-in fodder and episodes of The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits his forebears freely pillaged.
So then the afore mentioned weaknesses aren't the fact that much of this movie evokes the same warm glow as the summer blockbusters of my youth. Where Super 8 loses those crucial marks that would put in on par with those movies of yesteryear is that in the last act there are several scenes where the details of the plot get somewhat fuzzy. Now many are calling out this instances of plot holes, but I tend to think it's more of a case of exposition being missing in action as I could surmise what was going on well enough but a few lines at certain moments would have meant I wasn't nudged out of the movie by these little questions popping up.
Now if there's a longer cut coming on disc, I would at all be surprised to find that the scenes and lines currently on the cutting room floor will turn out to be the bits that fix this issues. On the other hand however, it may well have been a case that Abrams just wasn't keeping an eye on the devil in the details, because the omissions/failing in the narrative are related to the scifi and action mechanics. For in terms of the personal and emotional story - which in fairness is as much of the focus as the fantasy adventure side of things - the movie's last act round up everything very nicely. So then we have an ending that I will freely admit had me going misty eyed but afterwards did leave me with a few minor 'what exactly was going on there' queries.
Another area where Super 8 is weak is the Cargo itself. Now I loved all the hints and glimpses throughout the movie; it was pitch perfect movie monster handling, teasing the audience and not allowing us too much of a grasp on what it is or looks like, so we cannot easily diminish it in an 'ah, it's just a big tortoise' fashion (note for the hard of thinking: it's isn't a big tortoise - that's just an example). However, when we do get the big reveals in the last reel, I was somewhat underwhelmed by the design. While the effects and camera work were good, I just felt that the Cargo wasn't quite iconic enough.
Now none of the above are exactly a deal breaker but they does make the difference between Super 8 being merely a very good movie and a classic. However, there's far more positives than negatives here, and its strengths easily put it head and shoulders over most other blockbuster fare. For Super 8 relies on none of the usual standards of populist summer flicks - there's no over paid, over weight, and over the hill big name stars running about with guns, no pretty young pin-ups earning mega-bucks arsing about in front of green screens, and everything doesn't explode in a welter of CGI every ten minutes.
There are big action sequences; for example the train wreck, that comes very early on in the movie, is magnificently spectacular. However after this impressive devastation, the thrills are of a much smaller scale and Abrams wisely leaves all the massive carnage until the climax. And so for the majority of the film, instead we have a proper story, packed with suspense, drama and some good laughs too. But as well as the thrills and a decent pace, Super 8 has bags of emotion to touch the heart - it may be sentimental but it never tips into the cloying saccharine syrup that rots a film's teeth.
And this is pulled off not just with good scripting and direction, but some very fine performances. Not only are the kids likeable rather than bratty, but the acting talent displayed by Courtney and Fanning is highly impressive. In particular, the complex and powerful performance Elle Fanning gives not only eclipses her more famous sister but outshines the acting not only in other blockbusters but in many an arthouse and indie movie too.
The great irony of Super 8, is that while Abrams has been served a good deal of flack for mimicking Spielberg, because it delivers some real emotion power rather than overly sweet contrived confections to attempt to warm the heart, he's actually makes a better job of the material than his elder would. For there's in many of the most emotional scenes there's a rawness and darkness that Spielberg would overly balance with sweetness and light. And yet, it is in the action and scifi departments which are Abram's metier that he slightly fumbles.
However the strengths do considerably outweigh the weaknesses. Despite the *ahem* gremlins in the final act, I gasped, I laughed and, to complete the cliché, yes, I damn near well cried too. It may not be perfect but I had so much fun, I am considering a second visit to see it. And to put things in the broader context, too many blockbusters can only offer fumbled plots riddled with holes they hope to fill with a torrent of equally mishandled effects work set-pieces. So then to receive a movie like Super 8 whose story telling places the human drama rather than mindless CGI and explosions at its heart is something to celebrate.
Also if you do go - and I would recommend you do - be sure to stick around for the credits, when in a lovely touch they show the movie the kids made.
JIM MOON, 10th August 2011