Since the Spielberg heyday of E.T. and The Goonies, we’ve been waiting for a really smart, contemporary kids sci-fi adventure to match. Although Super 8, a project produced by the film-maker and written and directed by another great, J.J. Abrams (Cloverfield), is a damn fine extraterrestrial Noughties version that will totally capture the hearts and imagination of the younger audience, it doesn’t quite have the striking and lasting emotional connection of E.T. Nevertheless, it’s Abrams indulging in his/our nostalgia, pressing all the right buttons, and wearing a big soppy heart on his sleeve in the process.
Set in the summer of 1979, Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) and friends are into their Super 8mm film-making, and through the eye of young horror fan, director Charles (Riley Griffiths), set off to the local train station to grabs shots for their next scene, starring the boys’ secret crush, Alice (Elle Fanning). What happens next startles the group when they witness a mysterious train crash that involves one of their teachers. Soon after, they begin to notice strange happenings going on in their small town, and begin to investigate the creepy phenomenon.
Super 8 can be described as an engaging cross between coming-of-age exploration films like The Goonies, with tender, heartfelt moments of Stand by Me, and Abrams’s supernatural, alien fascination. Naturally, the kids are the heroes and mature overnight to solve the riddle, as well as trying to deal with growing up and their hormones kicking into touch. The film-making nod in the film points to a young Abrams’s developing hobby, and is also a blessing seeing imagination being used in a modern-day world dominated by video games. It also serves as a way into the characters’ personalities as we are exposed to their passions, frustrations and fears for the future. In this sense, it’s true retro 80s film-making in itself.
There are some exceptionally accomplished performances from all the young leads, including Courtney, Fanning and Griffiths, that keep you well and truly gripped, especially from newcomer Courtney who makes his highly impressive and touching debut here, and Fanning who demonstrates the same self-assured acting ability as her elder sibling, Dakota. In fact, Courtney’s immerging talent has landed him the role of Tom Sawyer in a 2013 adaptation, speaking volumes for his impact here. The kids’ thirst for intelligent answers matches our own curiosity, as Abrams slow-drips the information as to what’s happening in the bigger picture. As a result of the writer/director understanding where they stand and giving them a more mature outlook on the whole affair, adult viewers won’t get left behind while revelling in memories of their yonder years, and are right behind the intrepid adventurers in their big face-off.
It’s this part of the film that does feel a little ‘alien’ from the rest; the whole extraterrestrial confrontation is a tad uneven and rushed, reaching a resolution without anyone putting up much of a fight. Indeed, with kids in mind (12A rating), not too much gore can be shown. Still, Abrams either had to cut these cavernous scenes right back, or the budget went on the impressive and bone-chilling train crash at the start. That said the aliens in the film are not portrayed as monsters as such, and are in the same mindset as the District 9 visitors – misunderstood, rather than wantonly destructive. And it’s this renewed knowledge that makes the young heroes more accommodating than their jaded parental figures and their knee-jerk reactions in the film.
As for the special effects (and thankfully NO 3D), ‘more is less’ than recent sci-fi action dramas, with a lot of parallels between the limited resources and tools of the kids’ horror flick and the use of more emotive lighting effects than CGI in Abrams’ bigger frame. Indeed, after all the grandeur of the ending that’s reminiscent of E.T., we get to see Courtney and co’s final cut before the credits role, hopefully inspiring a new wave of film-making talent in the school summer holidays.
By Lisa Giles-Keddie
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