Thursday, 28 July 2011

Review: Super 8

Rating: 12A  
Runtime: 112 min

The association of J.J. Abrams with this latest Spielberg produced sci-fi is enough to get some film goers giggling with excitement. He is, after all, the brain behind Lost, CloverfieldMission: Impossible III and, soon to be released, Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol. Abrams is somewhat renowned for his successful ventures into cinema. He's also the rare example of someone who can reboot a franchise (M:I and Star Trek) without the end product resembling a stinking dog turd. A skilled writer and director, Abrams' first outing since his Kirk reimagining has all the promise of a classic summer blockbuster.

Justified or not, many are naturally throwing round comparisons to E.T. but with a bit more bite. One piece of advice: Don't enter with preconceived ideas, because nine times of out ten you'll more than likely be disappointed.  

Super 8 mixes the classic with the modern. Set in 1979, we follow a group of kids in the fictional, town of Lillian as they witness a horrific, yet over-the-top, CGI train crash as secret cargo contents escapes into the night. The premise will conjure up comparisons, but please leave them be. It’s this setting that instantly oozes nostalgia of decades gone by. The tone captures the essence of classic 70's or 80's movies in what is essentially a coming-of-age story about love, loss and forms a precursor to adulthood. 

As said escaped cargo begins to cause havoc upon the townspeople, what becomes apparent is Abrams' decision to make the youngsters the focal point, rather than an on-the-run-E.T (damn, there I go) style caper. Joe (Joel Lamb) and Alice (the awesome Elle Fanning) are the central players, and indeed hit us with the best performances. With diverse support from friends: Charles (Riley Griffiths), Cary (Ryan Lee), Martin (Gabriel Basso) and Preston (Zach Mills), the group narrowly avoid the exploding train as they film their own zombie movie, as well as capture the crash on a super 8 camera. The over arching story is the arrival of Government and army personnel as they attempt to track down the AWOL train guest. What's refreshing is that this aspect plays out as a secondary story in comparison to that of our young protagonists. Even with the town on lock-down, the determined adolescent film makers persist with their flick, which form the basis for several entertaining scenes.

Abrams' script offers a well balanced group who are all so different in personality; they evoke parallels to The Goonies or the kids from Stand By Me and come across as likable and relatable to, which adds to a nostalgic ambiance that resonates throughout the course of the film. It's this familiarity that captures childhood imagination, yet the sharp contrast of mild horror only emphasises the darker undertones of what Abrams intends you to feel, thus gifting the events that unfold a more dangerous and striking authenticity. 

Briefly, and without spoilers, it is worth talking about the mystery of said train crash. Whatever 'it' may be, I shall call 'it' Bob, for arguments sake. So, Bob escapes and remains elusive from the authorities and, to Abrams' credit, any shots of him remain obscured; hidden in shadow or perfectly cut to keep the intended mystery just that. The intrigue simmers nicely. In fact, the first half an hour is set up in an Abrams-style 'ask a lot of questions, don't get any answers, but here's some more questions' kinda way, as he sends a reminder that this is, first-and-foremost, a sci-fi/mystery coupled with a good helping of drama and a healthy sprinkling of adventure. 

Inevitably the identity of Bob is revealed, as the plot develops and does so in a way that leaves you unsure as to what you think you see, thus painting a murky image in your mind. It's only towards the latter stages that Bob is revealed in more detail and perhaps over exposes a little much in a few close-ups. However, Bob's aesthetics are more than satisfactory. In a world where revealed nasties tend to look like something plucked from the CGI recycling bin, Bob shouldn't leave audiences too underwhelmed.

As aforementioned, it’s Joe's story, which in the context of the premise is low key. Perhaps grounded is a better word, as none of the characters come across as anything more than vulnerable humans. Joe’s father and Local Sheriff, Jackson (Kyle Chandler), plays a bit part and does so with believability, leaving any Rambo type stunts out of the proceedings.

Subtle in its narrative, the ones at the centre of the plot are defined and shaped in a way that allows for a very character driven story. It stays focused, which is a refreshing change to the standard summer blockbuster, only accelerating a few gears as the climax approaches.

The stand out performance is the wonderful Elle Fanning, as she exudes a quality that will see her in a lot more from now on. All the young actors, in fact, were well cast as they display good chemistry, which results in funny exchanges, banter and even some emotional moments created by the subtly of their performances.

Aside from the occasional cheesy moment, the rest proves a solid and hugely likable film that has more to say than Michael Bay could ever dream of. Sub plots click into place nicely, but perhaps the key thing that lacks is that spark: an element that truly defines Super 8 as something worthy of a re-watch twenty years down the line. 

Super 8 is a fantastic summer blockbuster with more heart than most of this season's efforts combined. Cleverly crafted and brilliantly performed: granted this is no classic in the sense of E.T., yet it's by far one of the best of 2011. Hugely likable, full of mystery and excitement; the magic is there but it just lacks that unique quality to make it stand out as a true modern classic.

..Oh, and be sure to stay for the end credits (complete with a nod to Romero) - it's worth it.