Film, TV and the Arts

Film, TV and the Arts

Saturday, 6 August 2011

Film Review: Super 8

Michael Bay take note: this is how to make a proper spectacular

Director & Screenwriter: J.J. Abrams
Cast: Joel Courtney, Elle Fanning, Kyle Chandler, Riley Griffiths, Ryan Lee and Ron Eldard
Plot: A bunch of kids in a small American town are making a zombie movie with a Super 8 camera. Whilst filming at a train station one night, a passing Air Force train crashes. As the army move in to clean up, a number of curious and increasingly terrifying events start to take place in the town.

It is notable that Steven Spielberg has had his name plastered across two big film releases this summer: he was the executive producer on the third Transformers film and the producer of Super 8. These two films very much represent the two sides of Spielberg as a blockbuster filmmaker. The abominably poor Transformers: Dark of the Moon represents the latter-day Spielberg: the money-maker first, storyteller second, who produced the woeful fourth Indiana Jones film. The latter represents the early Spielberg: the consummate teller of compelling tales, with spectacle and vision to match.

Perhaps it is no surprise that Super 8 should feel like that earlier Spielberg work, because it is a massive tribute to it by the film’s director, J.J. Abrams. The film is set in 1979, when Abrams turned 13, and was watching Spielberg’s great work. Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Jaws had been and gone, and E.T. was but three years away, and every part of those films – the suburban feel, the suspense and the beating heart of them – is innate in the DNA of Super 8.

As far as the summer blockbuster goes, in this age of Bay-ification, Super 8 is a triumph because it proves that spectacle needn’t come at the expense of story, character and emotion. It centres on some young children who are making a zombie flick. One of them, Joe (Joel Courtney), has recently lost his mother and is still dealing with the grief. As they sneak off one night to record at a train station they witness an almighty train crash, which appears to trigger strange and terrifying events. Dogs flee, motors disappear from cars, electric cables vanish and people are stolen away in terrible attacks.

It’s all good popcorn stuff, but the mystery plays second fiddle to the characters, and, in this, Abrams is blessed with that rarest of things: children who can act. They are all unknowns, apart from Elle Fanning, who is excellent, but she is matched by Joel Courtney, who is a compelling lead, convincingly portraying a child coming to terms with the loss of a beloved parent, and striking up a delightful and sweet chemistry with Fanning. The rest of the group are funny and entertaining. There isn’t a weak link.

Nevertheless, this is a J.J. Abrams film, and he knows how to make a big-screen spectacular. His last directing credit was the excellent reboot of the Star Trek franchise, and here, once again, he demonstrates his ability to make great set-pieces. The pivotal train crash is breathtaking: brilliantly constructed and thrillingly executed, with a sound design which is clear, crisp and thunderous. He can also do things quietly; a scene at a petrol station is a fine example of suspenseful filmmaking, with the ring of a petrol pump counting the gallons providing most of the tension.

Without wanting to give too much away, there is of course a solution to the mystery, and the big reveal may prove a little disappointing. The film’s most thrilling moments are reliant on the shadows and take place in the audience’s imagination. When one can see everything, it loses that edge, but perhaps this is inevitable and only a minor quibble.

Having said that, it lags in the run-up to the climax, as a lot of set up is required before the final reel can run its course. Also, parents should be warned that the film is very much at the top end of the 12A bracket. Younger children will be very much disturbed by that they will understand, and a lot of it will go above their head anyway.

For all others though, this will be 111 minutes well spent. It is scary, funny, thrilling and I defy anyone to not be moved by it. It is both spectacular and emotionally satisfying: the storyteller strikes back for film lovers everywhere. The distressing thing is that, in the States, this film has grossed $125mn, compared to Transformers’ $340mn. It seems like there is some time to go before films like Super 8 become the norm and not the exception.

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