Super 8 review
Channeling early-era Spielberg, JJ Abrams concocts a retro summer adventure when a bunch of kids filming a home-made zombie movie discover something terrifying has escaped from a wrecked army train… and they may be the only ones able to help.
Nostalgic for the good old days of The Goonies and Close Encounters of the Third Kind? Never fret – JJ Abrams has written a love letter to Steven Spielberg that sprinkles the ‘only kids can truly understand’ formula with a dusting of real monster magic. Old-timers will breathe a sigh of relief, while new bloods will wish they lived in a time when you biked to visit your friend just next door, fabrics came in seven hot variations of ‘mustard’ and cool kids had walkie talkies not iPhones.
The plot follows a group of friends whiling away the summer of 1979 with a DIY zombie home movie project , a lovely conceit that allows for a bit of meta comment on the film-making process in the movie. Not least because you get to watch the zombie home movie as the end credits roll.
There are many limitations to being a kid with a dream, especially when it’s 1979 and you’re in a Steven Spielberg -sorry, JJ Abrams movie. A passably grubby gang of youths are determined to create the greatest zombie film the world has ever known, but needs must and to save on production values the children end up filming a vital scene at an abandoned railway station. So far, so thrifty. But things take a turn for the rather more massively alien when they witness a devastating, impossibly thrilling train crash that leaves all our mini-visionaries wordless (and places JJ Abrams at the head of the league table for Blowing Stuff Up.) Left with a town in confusion, a series of increasingly strange goings-on and just a tantalising glimpse of the mysterious creature responsible on their Super 8 camera, the kids find themselves caught up in a hide-and-seek mystery and we all know it ain’t the Army who are going to solve it.
Military meddling? First love? The triumph of the everyman, the healing of dysfunctional families and misunderstood gribblies? Action! Sound familiar? Of course it does, but the result is a lovely, engaging movie. There’s no point whinging about JJ Abrams’ arguable failure to top or even equal his hero. There’s nothing wrong with continuing the Spielbergian tradition of movies that say kids can sort things out, that being a kid has its upsides, that the military tend to get the wrong end of the stick, and that monster aliens just want to go home.
All of this is wrapped up in a warmly evoked late seventies / early eighties scenario. Details of the decade are lovingly painted, with walkmans, choppers, model painting kits and all the cool things that happened before the X-box. Oh, and adults are allowed to smoke EVERYWHERE. Happy days.
My main quibble, and it’s IMPORTANT, yo, is that a character in the film compares a piece of alien technology to a Rubiks cube. Oh, dude. Abrams. Get it right. Super 8 is set in 1979. The Rubiks cube wasn’t sold until 1980. Everyone knows that. How can you expect me to suspend my disbelief with chrono-fails on this scale?*
And what of the monster itself? The one that received all the pre-release interest? Intriguingly, the subtle but prolongued hype led us all to believe that Super 8 was a purist monster movie, in the vein of Cloverfield. We hypothesised over the look and mechanics of the monster for months. Suffice to say, the Super 8 monster does not look like this.
JJ Abrams set the tone for a million don’t show the monster movies with Cloverfield, and he uses the same trick to great effect here with speedy whooshes leaving a trail of destruction in their wake and municipal bins being flung high into the air. It’s exciting, but – good news – it’s not done to death. Sometimes, when you’re tapping into your child’s heart, you just want to grab a monster by the ears and stare into its big whuffling face for a reeeeally long time. That’s why I enjoyed the big reveal in Super 8 so much. Yeah, that’s right, you get to stare at a monster huffing and breathing all over you for a really big long time.
GOOD. Monster tricks can get stale. Sometimes you just need a monster.
At its heart, though, Super 8 isn’t a monster movie. It’s a kids have a great time being kids movie, that will make adults want to be kids again, and kids feel like their bottom deal could be improved very soon with an adventure just round the corner.
Yes, Super 8 definitely has a heart. Its your decision, as a viewer, to decide if it’s a big one. No, it’s not as good as an early Steven Spielberg classic. That’s because Spielberg created a template by following his own heart, whereas Abrams is echoing the template from following someone else’s. Nevertheless, it’s a good effort, a worthy endeavour and a film that you’d actually want to watch.
And that exploding train? Move over, Michael Bay. Theres a new King of Crash in town.
*No haters, please. This was the only means I could find to work in my knowledge of Rubiks cube manufacturing dates.