On the off chance anyone should underestimate the influence Steven Spielberg had on a generation of moviegoers in the 70s and 80s, one story sums it up better than most. In 1982, three 12-year-old friends from Mississippi had grown so obsessed with Raiders Of The Lost Ark that they embarked on their own shot-for-shot remake. Armed with a Betamax camera, some five dollars a week worth of pocket money, and a willingness to set themselves on fire for that all important burning bar scene, it took them just seven years.
Eric Zala, Chris Strompolos and Jayson Lamb’s paean to the adventures of Indiana Jones, Raiders Of The Lost Ark: The Adaptation, is a fitting tribute to one of the most glorious adventure movies of all time. It’s goofy, sure, yet also exhilarating. And it begs the question: what movies today would prompt such a reaction in young viewers? Summer blockbusters that trade in noise rather than logic? Special effects extravaganzas that rely on spectacle at the expense of character? Pixar has been doing its part, setting a bar that only a handful of others come close to.
Super 8, then, signals a new hope. They do make them like they used to. Or, more specifically, a lot like Spielberg used to make them. J.J. Abrams’ third film as director is the most unabashed tribute to the great director since those three childhood friends donned their own fedoras and turned an inflatable weather balloon into a runaway boulder. And while there are knowing winks and loving nods aplenty, with beat-for-beat homages to scenes from the original Indy trilogy, a rousing John Williams-esque score, courtesy of Michael Giacchino, and a big bad that sounds uncannily like Jurassic Park‘s T. rex, it’s what’s underneath all this that counts.
Abrams captures the spirit of Spielberg in his prime, a sense of wonder sitting alongside characters you just want to spend the whole day with. It should come as little surprise that Super 8 is about an alien invader. The perfectly judged teasers and trailers have given us that much. But the big surprise is that’s not the most exciting thing here. Far from it. Abrams has set his sights higher than just fleeting moments of grandeur.
There are no big wow set pieces here (although the train scene is a doozy), and no game-changing effects showpieces (just ones that make the other-worldly look frighteningly real). Despite the shroud of secrecy that accompanies it (a good thing a million times over), there’s not even a last minute reveal to rival M. Night Shyamalan in his heyday. And that’s Super 8‘s greatest virtue. It’s a film full of details and rife with ideas, but all in service to a greater good. This is a story about children as richly drawn, funny and memorable as anything Spielberg and his peers came up with in the 70s and 80s.
Indeed, Abrams’ film has a nostalgia for that very time, a late 70s America where children (and adults, even) were enthralled by a generation of filmmakers pushing the boundaries of mainstream cinema. Super 8‘s kids are like Zala, Strompolos and Lamb, brought together in pursuit of their own lofty adventure, their own film masterpiece. And like Michel Gondry’s Be Kind Rewind, it basks in the healing power of film, the unbridled joy and sense of belonging that it can bring.
The film’s first half is as good an hour of cinema as you’re likely to see this, or any other year. It has drama, suspense, humour, and heart in abundance, all courtesy of Abrams’ devotion to making us care about these characters.
Joel Courtney’s quiet hero, Joe, Elle Fanning’s object of affection, Alice, and Riley Griffiths’ Hitchcock in the making, Charles, are the obvious standouts, thrust centre stage. But even the supporting players are afforded moments to shine. Gabriel Basso’s Martin is so brilliantly awkward a leading man in their home-made movie that his every scene is a comedic goldmine.They’re so good that, when the action does come, you almost wish it would go away and come back later.
There’s a palpable sense of danger that comes with each attack, a threat of loss hanging heavy that raises the stakes and makes these action scenes more than just something to look at.
Yet, Abrams pulls out his big guns sparingly. Super 8 is eighty percent build-up, twenty percent payoff. And that’s what’s so great about it. Abrams does build-up better than most filmmakers do payoff, including himself, unfortunately.
Like Star Trek before it, Super 8 hasn’t quite got the legs to make it over the finish line at the gallop it maintains for so long. Spielberg had that down to a tee at the height of his powers. The bridge cliffhanger in Temple Of Doom, the Velociraptor attack in Jurassic Park, the emotional wallop of E.T. are all perfectly paced and hugely satisfying. Abrams can’t quite find the right balance as he tries to meld a family-friendly adventure with the wham bam action thrills of a modern day blockbuster. If anything, Abrams’ monster is lacking in personality and short of wonder. Like Jaws, it works better viewed in glimpses or not at all.
It’s here that Super 8 works best as the alien invasion movie some may want it to be. The film’s second act is one long tease, deftly playing with our anticipation of the big reveal. Abrams and his cinematographer, Larry Fong, keep us straining for a better look, giving only rushed close-ups and all too brief glimpses via rear view mirrors. More impressive, Abrams and his crew use sound effects to ratchet up the tension. Leather shoes on floor, the whirl of a Super 8 camera, and a hydraulic lift have never sounded so good.
Super 8 attempts a similar trajectory to the crew of Abrams’ re-imagined Starship Enterprise. It reaches for the stars, not quite going where no man has gone before, but certainly where too few have gone recently. It serves as the perfect reminder why it’s so easy to fall in love with movies.They just have to be as good as this.Read Ron Hogan’s review for the US release of the film, here.