Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Review | Super 8 (2011)

Super 8 is resplendent in its Spielberg credentials. Honestly, why shouldn't it be? When you've got one of the most successful men in the film industry executive producing your film, you'd be a fool not to make the most of it. Except Super 8 doesn't just make the most of it, instead going beyond paying homage to Spielberg's earlier work (think pre-Schindler's List and you're about there) to jam-packing the film so full of stylistic and thematic references to other films that writer and director J.J. Abrams too often seems to forget to put in any of his own film.

The story is straightforward enough. A group of school friends growing up in small-town USA in 1979 set about making their own movie. Sneaking out to film at a ramshackle train platform one night, the group witness a catastrophic train derailment bizarrely involving one of their schoolteachers driving onto the tracks. It soon becomes apparent that that's not the only unusual thing about the crash as the U.S. Air Force soon make their presence felt as well, as strange occurrences become more and more frequent in the town.

The film does have a lot going for it, not least the performances of the young actors. Child actors can often make or break a film for me, either proving such a fresh and pleasing talent that they alone become reason enough to see it, or grating so badly they detract from the film's overall success. Thankfully the group of young'uns heading up Super 8 firmly avoid falling into the latter bracket. In fact, their collective performance is what makes the first half of the film so enjoyable. Standing out slightly more than any others are Joel Courtney and Elle Fanning (younger sister of Dakota) who play Joe Lamb and Alice Dainard respectively. The companionship that grows between these two throughout the film is wonderful to watch, and whilst Courtney's portrayal of a pre-teen boy who has recently lost his mother is at times a little too understated to feel genuine, the chemistry between him and Fanning in bringing Joe and Alice's relationship to life is palpable and impressive in such young performers. Fanning throughout shows immense potential to become a future star.

Despite his intent to make a film paying tribute to Spielberg, it is often when Abrams is being most true to his own style that the film shines. The derailment of the train and subsequent crash sequence is spectacular, done without the grandiose nature of Emmerich or the mindless busy mess of which Michael Bay can't get enough. Abrams makes it authentic yet fantastical and always captivating, reminiscent of the brilliant plane crash scenes seen in another of his creations - the television series Lost. His handling too of the scenes in which the extra-terrestrial attacks is also very tight, providing genuine jumps; Abrams expertly controls the precise moments at which the alien lets rip, as well as how much of the attack we actually see.

Super 8 is also beset with flaws, however. After crafting a heartfelt opening act and, for the most part, a well-crafted sci-fi mystery with touches of horror for the second, the film unfortunately wanders into less inspired territory for its final act. Things seem to shift almost entirely from inhabiting an ordinary world where extraordinary things are happening to a highly cinematic world of sudden character shifts and drop-of-a-hat action sequences. Perhaps Abrams was hoping to kick things up another gear or two for a stunning climax, but it just makes the final thirty minutes or so of the film sit uncomfortably at odds with what's come before it, denying the audience the type of payoff they were undoubtedly hoping for.

As stated previously, however, the greatest problem with Super 8 is also the element that at times provides some of its greatest strengths, namely its referential nature to not only Spielberg's work and style, but also other movies outside his canon of work. You will notch up nods to The Goonies, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial and Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, as well as Stand By Me, Alien and even Cloverfield, a film to which Abrams himself is linked through production duties. Whilst Abrams at times invokes these spirits of the past with panache, giving his film an air of quality and heritage, more often they return to haunt his picture highlighting just how it often has very little of its own to say. The alien presence is a prime example. Those who've seen Cloverfield may find themselves experiencing more than a little déjà vu, to the point of anticlimax. Abrams also invites us to empathise with the creature in the way Spielberg did nearly thirty years ago with E.T., but this is easier to do before actually meeting Super 8's extra-terrestrial. Somehow I just didn't feel too inclined to emotionally attach myself with an alien after seeing it feed on human beings, apparently without discretion.

Ultimately, Super 8 does a lot of things right, but these in the end are regularly competing with errors too large to ignore. Whilst there is a great rite of passage story for at least one of the young protagonists in there, it becomes clouded by an unnecessary shift to a clichéd action style and Abrams obsession with alluding to other cinematic works. Ironically, if he hadn't tried so hard to emulate his executive producer, Abrams may have got closer to what Spielberg at his best does to perfection: great storytelling his own way, where the action is never placed above the heart within the story.


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