Super 8

Synopsis: J.J. Abrams and Steven Spielberg join in this extraordinary tale of youth, mystery and adventure. Super 8 tells the story of six friends who witness a train wreck while making a Super 8 movie, only to learn that something unimaginable escaped during the crash. They soon discover that the only thing more mysterious than what it is, is what it wants. Experience the film that critics rave is “filled with unstoppable imagination and visual effects to spare. It will put a spell on you.”

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Super 8 8.0

eyelights: the cast. its classic Spielberg vibe.
eyesores: the CGI creature. the grim third act.

“I know that’s your camera, sir, but technically, that’s my film.”

Nostalgia is a powerful force. Nearly everyone who’s grown up with Steven Spielberg’s ’70s and ’80s output longs for more of the same. How could you not want more of ‘Jaws’, ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind‘, Indiana Jones’, ‘E.T.’, et al?

His impact on cinema at the time was so profound that there was a Spielberg formula which many other films attempted to emulate. And the moment that Spielberg was associated to a film, even as executive producer, you could expect his magic.

But Spielberg isn’t that Spielberg anymore; he’s grown, he’s moved on.

Though his audience may not have.

So it’s not surprising, then, to find an attempt to tap into Spielberg’s magic and bring it back to the screen for modern audiences; there’s a craving for it from fans of his earlier output, and some of those fans just happen to be filmmakers now.

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, right?

And that’s what one gets with ‘Super 8′, J.J. Abrams’ 2011 motion picture which finds a handful of teenagers caught up in a government conspiracy to conceal the arrival of an alien life form. Unsurprisingly, Steven Spielberg also produced it.

The picture is set 1979 in a small Ohio town. Our protagonist, Joe, has just lost his mother to a work-related accident. Spurred by Charles, a budding filmmaker, his friends are working together to produce a short zombie picture on super 8 film.

Late one night, they all sneak out to film a scene at the train station – with the help of a pretty girl whom Charles is trying to woo. But, as they’re filming, a train barrels towards the station and crashes when a man deliberately drives into it.

Inspecting the wreckage, they realize that something is amiss and they run. But the military is on the scene and they’re tracking something down, possibly leading them to Joe and his friends. And then weird things start happening all around town.

People and things go missing.

I really enjoyed ‘Super 8’. I liked how Abrams created a complicity between the teens, much in the same way that Spielberg did in his day. It was familiar for two reasons: because I’d seen it on screen so many times, but also because I had experienced it.

Charles and Joe’s attraction to Allie (and minor rivalry) also took me back; I certainly had my fair share of schoolboy crushes; often a friend and I shared them. I really liked how Abrams approached it, too, making both boys more mature than you’d think.

Obviously, Abrams wasn’t just emulating Spielberg in making this picture; it was a personal story about being a an aspiring director and he injected some of himself in it. That’s probably why the picture resonates to some degree; it really feels true.

The picture does another thing to make its setting realistic: it creates realistic familial relationships. Joe’s father is a police chief struggling as a single father, and Charles’ family are dysfunctional in much the same way as Roy’s in ‘Close Encounters’.

For those of us who grew up in that era, this hits home: the rise in single parent families sharpened dramatically in the ’70s and the ability of larger families to keep it together frayed at the ends. Most of my friends were from single-parent homes.

I got a kick out of all the tongue-in-cheek references that Abrams injected in it, like no shop being able to develop film in the same day, no one liking coffee, or the ‘Grosse Pointe Blank‘-esque Walkman scene. They all poke fun at societal shifts since.

These are the bits that work the best; the ones that are deeply rooted in reality. When the picture crosses into science fiction, it stumbles a little bit. For instance, the cube that Joe takes home gets no reaction from anyone no matter how it behaved.

Then there’s the alien, which is a CGI mess that ruined the picture’s ’70s flavour; not only is its presence a contrivance for silly action pieces, it just doesn’t look real. Everything that revolves around the alien elicits incredulity; it doesn’t hold up.

The CGI isn’t the only technical eyesore in ‘Super 8′: the editing is also a little sloppy at times, with characters’ hair shifting position between takes. Still, all told, the picture is a remarkable slice of eye and ear candy from Abrams and Spielberg.

But the most impressive sequence is the trainwreck: watching the thing speeding past and then lift up in the air upon impact, throwing pieces of itself and its cargo all over the place, while Joe and his friends try to dodge the carnage, was something.

Nothing after this comes close.

In fact, the third act tries so hard to be intense that it goes too dark for my taste. Though I remember the end of ‘E.T.’ being scary for kids, it was anchored by the deep connection between Elliot and the alien. Here, the finale is bereft of such anchor.

One thing it does do right is having collateral damage, by having one of Joe’s friend get hurt (though not in a life-threatening way), thereby adding realism and upping the stakes; people can get hurt in this movie, so we can’t be complacent as we watch.

Now, I wouldn’t say that ‘Super 8’ is a brilliant film, but it does a lot very well. Of course, it has a few excellent blueprints to follow. One thing for sure is that fans of early Spielberg are well-served here, even though the recipe has been updated some.

Ultimately, the picture’s message is that aliens aren’t necessarily a threat to us; they aren’t the bad guys – humanity are. Or can be. This isn’t anything new (Spielberg did exactly that with ‘E.T.’), but it’s something that still feels true now.

A touch of truth reverberates, and that’s probably why this picture works as well as it does. Plus Abrams threw a little bit of himself into the mix as he told a bigger, broader tale. If he did more of that, he could very well be Spielberg’s cinematic heir.

And that wouldn’t be such a bad thing.

Post scriptum: The short film that Charles and co. are making during ‘Super 8’ is shown in full during the end credits. It’s rather amusing, actually, though it’s a bit slick for something shot by amateurs on super 8 film. It’s well worth checking out.

Date of viewing: April 13, 2017

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