***originally written 10 August 2011***
J.J Abrams likes secrets. From the marketing strategy of Cloverfield, to the entire bait-the-audience storytelling of Lost (and we’ll come back to Lost later), Abrams knows that what interests the audience the most is often what they either don’t know, or can’t see. And so we come to his new feature film and love-letter to producer Steven Spielberg, Super 8.
Super 8 is all about people not-knowing-things, both the characters and the audience. Set in 1979 (I think), the film’s primary focus is on a group of childhood friends who, in their summer holiday, are attempting to make a zombie movie. The project is that of portly and enthusiastic Charles (favourite thing to say: “production value!”)*, but the ‘hero’ character here is Joe (Joel Courntey), a sweet kid who recently lost his mother and whose father, the local deputy, is growing increasingly detached from him. Whilst out filming against parental instruction at the nearby, gloomy station, the kids witness a train crash that will change their lives, and the lives of everyone in the sleepy town of Lilian forever.
And so the mystery element of the movie begins. It seems as though one of the kids’ teachers purposeful caused the crash – but why? Joe takes a souvenir from the crash; a strange little cube that the military are very keen to get back – but why? All the dogs have left the town, the power keeps going out, and people are randomly disappearing after quick glimpses of a large, slimy looking creature… what’s going on here!? J.J. Abrams likes secrets, and Super 8 draws you in with quite a few of them.
But that’s not what really draws you into this picture. What draws you in are the kids. These child actors are terrific. Thankfully more Stand By Me than The Goonies. Joel Courtney constantly reminds you of Elliott in E.T. in a good way. He makes Joe wide-eyed and open-hearted. Easy to cheer for. Likewise, young Riley Griffiths makes budding-director Charles a fabulous, well-rounded (no pun intended) creation. The real score (unsurprisingly following her stellar performance last year in Sofia Coppola’s under-seen Somewhere) is Elle Fanning as Alice, who puts on a brave face for the small world she lives in that regard her as the product of no-good trailer-trash. That these kids are good is one thing, that they have such chemistry together must’ve been a Godsend to Abrams, especially Courtney and Fanning. In fact, it’s safe to say that whenever the kids are together on screen Super 8 is a five-star movie.
Unfortunately, Super 8 is not a five-star movie.
Let’s talk about Lost again for a moment (I am going somewhere with this). If you ask anyone who was enthusiastic about Lost what their favourite season of the show was, I practically guarantee you they’ll say either season 1 or 2. Because, as thick with fantastic twists and turns and science-fiction wows as the later seasons were, it all started with the characters. Those early years were about the people, not the constantly shape-shifting McGuffin, which ultimately swallowed the show whole in that last, awful, disappointing season. Super 8, sadly, is like a 2 hour distillation of what went right and what went wrong with Lost. The first half an hour is brilliant. Absolutely brilliant. A classic in the making. Wonderful characters warmly introduced, and, in the train-crash sequence, one of the best set-pieces in Summer blockbuster history.
Pretty soon however, Abrams appears to lose focus and, criminally, interest in his young leads. The story becomes too busy painting on an elusive, larger canvas, feeding in the mystery elements, but also dallying too much with X-Files subplots about ne’er-do-well military types and a larger conspiracy that we really only ever get the most cursory cliff notes on. His alien creature (it’s an alien, by the way) is an uninspired and elusive creation, mostly nasty, but – when it suits the plot also pitiable – are we supposed to root for it, or fear it? And whilst Joe is never forgotten, the same can’t be said for his friends. I’m sure there were 6 of them at the beginning, by the end there only seem to be 4. Even at the rushed finale, the friends are never fully reunited, and their cause – the zombie movie – disappears completely as Abrams decides special effects are much more fun to play with. And like Lost, the answers to the mysteries, so long a pre-occupation of the running time, don’t feel as though they wholly justified the build up. Blanks are sketchily filled in. It never feels like this is the kids’ story either; just a bunch of weird stuff that happened around them.
There’s no after-thought either. As soon as Abrams’ paranormal hokum is wrapped up, that’s it, end of film, leaving a majority of the characters without grace notes. Sure, the end credits play out accompanied by the end-product of all their hard work – the joyful little zombie short The Case – but it’s too little too late, and actually a bitter reminder of what was missing from the last hour.
It’s a shame, because Abrams was really onto a good thing here. The scenes with the kids together are brilliant, and well-worth seeing the movie for. Perhaps it’s just me, but I would’ve been far more content with a smaller movie about their summer project. Instead Super 8 feels like a charming independent film that got trampled on by a Summer ‘event’ picture. I like that the film attempted to make stars instead of casting stars, and it’s always encouraging in an area of the movie industry bogged down in superheroes and reboots to see a movie that stands up and tries to be something different, even if it does wear it’s influences on it’s sleeve (and producer credits). But Super 8 just isn’t the movie it could’ve been.
*it’s worth noting that the other kids’ favourite thing to say is “shit”. For a 12A, Super 8 is rife with swearing, drug use and one bloody death.