In a summer filled with blockbuster sequels and second string superhero flicks, most of which have underwhelmed it’s truly refreshing to see this old-school, heartfelt throwback to classic family cinema of the seventies and eighties. A clearly personal escape directed by J J Abrams, Super 8 clearly owes a debt of gratitude to Spielburbia, particularly the similarly themed E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial but can also be compared to other favourites like Stand By Me. Both reverential and charming it’s the perfect antidote to robots bashing the bolts out of each other and Ryan Reynolds looking like a tit.
It’s the summer of ’79 and young Joe (Joel Courtney) is struggling to connect with his local deputy father (Kyle Chandler) following the tragic demise of his mother in a sleepy Ohio berg. His hobby of making and painting impressive miniature models lands him the role of make-up artist on buddy Charles’ (Riley Griffiths) zombie movie shot on the eponymous Super 8 camera, a job that puts him in close proximity to the attractive Alice (Elle Fanning). Keen to imbue his picture with production values Charles shoots an important scene with the noisy backdrop of a passing freight train which derails spectacularly and releases its mysterious cargo including scores of strange shape-shifting cubes and, as caught on film, something alive. Things get really freaky when the neighbourhood dogs scarper and car engines disappear from vehicles overnight, not to mention the local sheriff.
There are two stories here, the atmospheric alien cover-up conspiracy which sees Joe’s dad squaring up against a tight-lipped air force colonel and Joe’s continuing battle with his feelings. The beautifully pitched budding romance between Joe and Alice drives the narrative (there’s a really sweet scene where he tentatively applies her make-up) and smart direction keeps the alien plot rolling and the two complement each other nicely. What they don’t do is have any real impact upon each other barring the obvious but that’s not unrealistic – stories both personal and fantastical can happily coexist without interacting.
The important hook for the film lies in Joe’s awesomely geeky circle of friends, whose deprecating banter and wide-eyed resourcefulness will win the hardest of hearts. The characters are all archetypes, there’s the chubby guy, the lanky, nerdy one, the pyromaniac, but they’re good archetypes and played tremendously by a cast of fresh-faced youngsters that fit the period so perfectly you suspect some real world time travel kidnapping may be involved. The heart of the gang is their collective awe at pop culture, festooning their bedrooms with Star Wars memorabilia and possessing a single-minded drive to complete their motion-picture masterpiece. They are Abrams’ ambassadors for his own experience of growing up in that era, slightly autobiographical in their situation and the love and nostalgia for their pre-internet lifestyle is infectious.
As great as the gang is Joel Courtney steals it from all of them with a quiet, nuanced performance, effortlessly convincing as a bright young man discovering the world and the first realities of puberty while struggling to accept the passing of a parent. Everyone else who matters plays off him, every important relationship in the film hits the spot and by the time the credits roll you care about what happens. We’ll see more from this young man in the future for sure.
The sci-fi side of things doesn’t match the irresistible charm of the human element but there’s enough going on to keep you engaged. Abrams very sensibly keeps the creature from us for most of the running time and presents us with the unique scenario where the vicious killer monster from outer space is just as terrified of us as we are of it and just wants to go home, something we know courtesy of an all-too-convenient exposition device. It’s an original idea but a bit flawed since we’re expected to both fear and sympathise with this thing but it’s nice to see some shades of grey.
Super 8 was always going to be compared to E.T. which is hardly fair but enough time has passed since that landmark title in family viewing that a whole new generation perhaps unfamiliar with Spielberg’s classic have arrived for whom this might well achieve something similar. Not short of heart or entertainment value it’s a very worthy example of good, original live-action family escapism free of the irritating wackiness rife in the genre. Forget Transformers and its whizz-bangs and give something with both heart and brains a go.
A brilliantly played homage to better summers with exciting young talent and a soul above the commercial. One of the best films of the summer.