A while back, in my review of the Star Trek reboot, I may have spurted that JJ Abrams is well on his way to becoming Spielberg Mk II. If Super 8 is to be believed, he’s pretty much pulled off that little coup – it’s a movie that resonates with Spielberg’s influence, from the beautiful, shot-on-film texture to the wonderfully weighted story, this is a wonderfully entertaining movie.
Ostensibly telling the tale of a group of kids trying to make a zombie movie on a Super-8 camera, it inevitably turns sinister when the kids accidentally capture a catastrophic train cash. Attempting to use the subsequent, unexplained military lockdown as a backdrop for their movie, the find themselves and their parents tangled further and further in fracas involving a strange, belligerent creature that seems to have been released from the crash.
It’s most certainly a perfect blend of both Spielberg’s heart and Abrams’ head. Told almost entirely from the perspective of the kids, it’s a clear riff on the Goonies-style kids-in-over-their-heads formula, with each of the wonderfully played children having a distinct and intriguing personality, with motivations to act beyond simple desire to survive. Joel Courtney and Elle Fanning are particular revelations, though this is one of those rare movies where the kids ensemble outshines the adults.
It’s also really quite well written, with what might be clichéd or entirely outlandish lines given a cute twist by filtering them through the language and mannerisms of early teenagers. Choice lines abound, and there’re even some quite affecting moments amid the frequent bouts of monster- and train-based carnage.
That there’s also quite thoughtful sci-fi underlying the personal dramas of these kids is pleasantly surprising. Avoiding spoilers, the creature is well conceived, if hardly that original, and sharp digital effects bring it to life in unexpected and intriguing ways. Abrams brings his mastery of the slow reveal to the fore too – drip-feeding us glimpses of a rich back-story that, when it pays off, is almost entirely satisfying. There’s perhaps a bit too much effort put into it, and it perhaps informs us a little too much whilst sacrificing the truly remarkable stuff going on with the kids, but you don’t really notice this when you’re watching it thanks to pacy editing for the duration of its 112-minute tenure.
The only irritation that really occurred to me was the niggling sense of vague déjà vu – both in terms of the echoes of Spielberg, and indeed Abram’s own producing back-catalogue. A monster movie? From a slightly different perspective to the traditional one? Just because you’ve ditched the shaky cam, doesn’t mean it’s not essentially the same idea! But like I say, this is a practically unnoticeable blemish on a sparkling gem of a film. It’s also worth saying that it’s almost cynically Spielbergian – and if you don’t like Spielberg, you’ll find more or less nothing that you like here.
Exciting and yet heartfelt, this is Abrams’ best work to date, and if you’ve been in search of a good sci-fi fix this year, this is your ticket. Even if you’re not, there’s much to like here – it looks fantastic, it features some incredible performances and it keeps you riveted to your seat. Catch it on the big screen, though – this is most definitely a cinema movie.