2011 has been a bit of a retro year at the cinema. In May Joe Cornish’s Attack the Block tipped its hat to 80s gang flick The Warriors; last month’s Captain America felt so much like an Indiana Jones film that it even made a number of not-so subtle reference to Raiders of the Lost Ark; not forgetting Red Riding Hood, which we all expected to be a partial remake of 1984’s Company of Wolves, but turned out to rip off Twilight. And then there’s Super 8, a film so steeped in nostalgia for a bygone age of cinema, that it even has Steven Speilberg on the credits, albeit in the capacity of producer rather than as the director.
With Super 8, director JJ Abrams is clearly trying to create something that sits alongside the films that he grew up watching, and in most ways, he pulls it off. Part ET, part Close Encounters and part The Goonies, Super 8 is pure homage and nostalgia, with barely a beat of originality in the entire film. Consequently your enjoyment of the movie will depend on your regard for the properties that inspired it. It goes without saying that if you feel the need to run out of the room every time an early Speilberg flick comes on the TV, you should avoid Super 8 like the plague. It’s probably worth being equally wary if you consider the work of The Beard to be a sacred cow, untouchable by human hands, as Super 8 does, at times, feel a lot like a cover version of a selection of 80s greatest hits.
That said, this sort of skilled, slow-build storytelling – allowing characters to breathe, grow and become fully realised on screen – is often absent from modern movies. For most audiences, this should offer a welcome break from the regular summer fare of overloaded, frenetically paced explosion-fests. Also, the semi-autobiographical story of a group of slightly awkward children making a short film – an experience both Spielberg and Abrahams had as young teenagers – offers an interesting, if non-specific insight into what it was that drove both men to become the hugely influential directors/producers they are today.
The film’s leads, a group that consists almost entirely of novice actors, are all solid; managing to tread the fine line between charmingly adult and annoyingly precocious without a misstep. Indeed, it is in the performances of its not-quite-child stars that Super 8 most displays the influence of Steven Speilberg – a man famed for his ability to draw convincing and compelling performances from young actors.
Among the cast, Ellen Fanning in particular is exceptional. If she gave a performance this good in a non-genre film, or at least one that were a little more consistent, she would be generating Oscar buzz around now. In a not particularly meaty or rounded role (on paper at least she’s simply a girl suffering just enough for our hero to win the day by saving her from her sort-of-crap life), Fanning steals the film, the highlight of every scene she’s in, but with a degree of subtlety and lack of self awareness that most actors don’t have after decades of honing their craft.
Unfortunately Super 8 isn’t consistently strong, and while there are some truly great moments, – in particular the opening which, with just a few images, tells us everything we need to know about protagonist, Joe Lamb’s back story, and the tragedy that befell his family – there are also some terribly realised ideas, the worst of which are some huge jumps in logic*.
We are also given an Ubervillain/MacGuffin (UberMacGuffVillain?) that has motivations, wants and desires that vary depending on the needs of the film’s writers. And, of course, more of JJ’s trademark lens flare than you can shake a non-reflective surface at. This last complaint is a minor one, and one that I fully expect to be making until Abrams retires from filmmaking, but it is bloody annoying, and an entirely unnecessary distraction at moments when the film should have our full attention.
All in all though, these faults are minor. Super 8 is a thoroughly entertaining movie that wears its influences firmly on its sleeve. While there may be some who dislike it, the films’ sincerity and self confidence and charm mean that they will be in the minority. See it.
*Inexplicable without giving away some serious spoilers, but just ask yourself quite why some bits of metal are ‘wanted’, when other, larger bits are entirely ignored.
Super 8 is released in the U.K. tomorrow.