Who else can remember when that first, ominous teaser for Super 8 arrived online? At the time, it seemed as though director J.J. Abrams was returning with another straightforward monster flick (after the opinion-dividing Cloverfield), only this time one that would hopefully be filmed in a more traditional style.
That’s kind of what happened. There most certainly is a monster on the loose. And the camera is no longer bobbing up and down along with the actors at high speeds. People aren’t screaming all the goddamn time, either. But what Super 8 eventually revealed itself as, to the surprise of many, was in fact a really good coming of age story.
Just one that happens to have a large, angry alien in it.
Set in the late 70s, Super 8 is the story about a group of young friends who, while shooting their own home grown zombie film, witness a train crash from which a not-so friendly extra-terrestrial escapes. Soon every dog in the town makes a break for it. Then people start disappearing. And it’s not long before the military rolls in with their own sinister agenda. Amidst the chaos, our team of aspiring movie makers find themselves solving the otherworldly mystery.
Before I get to the good stuff, I do want to talk about that train crash. Because it was, by far, the most utterly butterly ridiculous thing I’ve seen since Indiana Jones crawled into that fridge (oh, I wish I was over-exaggerating). The term, ‘over the top’ comes to mind, but no, this is way beyond the known limits of OTT and takes you straight out of the film. Now, I know I’m nitpicking. It’s just one sequence. But I can’t even begin to stress how off the rails it is (and I am not in the mood for puns)! So for the sake of my sanity, and just to sum the whole event up, it pits one lonesome pickup truck against the full fury of a freight train... and the pickup truck wins. WITH A VENGEANCE.
Buuut moving on...
What with this being a coming of age story, the main cast is of course a group of kids. And to my great and pleasant surprise, these child actors were excellent. I’ve come to expect the worst from the more youthful thespians these days, but Abrams works wonders with them here, and each turns in a totally believable performance (with Cary, the slightly insane pyrotechnic deserving a special mention, as is the Corey Feldman-alike one who’s name escapes me since he only had about five minutes of screen time). What’s most alarming is how none of them is even a little annoying. Joel Courtney in particular provides a very likeable lead as Joe, regardless of that Luke Skywalker hairdo. Maybe there was the infrequent dud line here or there, but for the most part I was more than convinced.
Alongside them is a good and relatively unfamiliar cast of adults whose characters, it should be noted, are a tad clichéd. We’ve got the protagonist’s stern single dad who’s trying to juggle his parenting abilities with his job (almost inevitably, he’s a cop). Then there’s the love interest’s alcoholic wreck of a father – a character who Stephen King would no doubt be proud of. And let’s not forget the EVIL MILTARY COLONEL OF DOOM with the kind of name you’d expect from a Star Trek villain. Pick of the bunch, though, is a stoner who ends up playing the comic relief during the intense third act, and gets to steal every scene he’s in while dropping the film’s single, hilariously delivered F-Bomb (ahh, the joys of the 12A rating). But in all seriousness, they do a great job.
Much has been made of “the Spielberg influence”. Yeah, it’s true. And he is the producer, after all. That’s got to help a bit, hasn’t it? But the plot does indeed come across as a mishmash of E.T. (the town setting), Jaws (the unseen monster), and The Goonies (the adventurous boys). All films I know many of us, including myself, were familiar with at a young age. And by setting Super 8 in the 70s, you realise how this isn’t just intended to look like any old Spielberg effort... but an early Spielberg movie. Somehow, it all feels right.
Well, except for the CGI. Which leads us to the creature.
Considering how trailers these days have this uncanny ability to condense the plot of a two hour long film into just two and a half minutes, they pulled a neat trick in keeping this thing hidden prior to Super 8’s release. Due to this, your imagination will invariably conjure up something far more interesting than the end result. And unfortunately, I think this happened with me. When it was eventually revealed in all its alien glory, I gave a little shrug. Without wanting to spoil it, I found the design to be at once too busy and a little boring. That probably doesn’t make much sense, but perhaps you’ll understand me once you’ve seen it for yourself. And when the time came for the beast’s close-up, I’ve gotta say it, the CGI didn’t hold up as well as it should. It looked too clean and “floaty”, while I imagine the brief use of a practical effect for those sequences might have made a whole world of difference. Thank goodness, then, that it’s kept off-screen for ninety percent of the time. Those early attacks where we’re only given fleeting glimpses are very effective thanks to their use of suspense.
The only major stumble comes with the film’s ending. I won’t give away the details, but there’s an unbearably cheesy moment involving the creature right when the climax should be kicking into overdrive. You can feel the collective rolling of eyeballs throughout the audience! (I swear the exact same thing happened that one time Shia LaBeouf went to robot heaven!) Again, no spoilers, but it was far too Peter Jackson’s King Kong for my liking, and reeked of a cop-out. Meanwhile, the ending proper smashes straight through homage and directly rips off a certain other sci-fi classic. Only without the extra emotional oomph.
It’s a shame Super 8 had to drop the ball so late into the game, because just about everything that came before (ABSURD train crash aside) was so damn enjoyable. And more than anything, it was a fantastic nostalgia trip for me which expertly captured that sense of boyhood wonder I would get from those aforementioned childhood favourite films.
In fact, I reckon a lot of kids today will find their new best film in Super 8. And that’s a great feeling.
But seriously, J.J., where the hell is that Star Trek sequel?