Whether in the form of a professor with a whip or a flying Robin Williams, a moonlit bike ride or the rippling of water, it’s a near certainty that somewhere in your fondest childhood memories lies the work of Steven Spielberg. For a generation the Summer would mean one thing more than any other, the chance to see the latest Spielberg film at the cinema. This year it is down to ‘the new Stephen Spielberg’ (J.J. Abrams), under the tutelage of ‘the old Stephen Spielberg’ (Stephen Spielberg) to direct the Summer’s blockbuster family offering in the form of Super 8, an alien invasion film which pays homage to the family films of a simpler, more innocent age.
That innocent age, apparently, is the 80s, and in Lillian, Ohio we meet Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) , a young boy who has just lost his mother in an accident at the Steel plant where she worked. His father, Jackson (Kyle Chandler) is the local police deputy and has been largely absent in Joe’s upbringing. Now facing not only life after love but the responsibilities of single parenthood, Jackson tells Joe he disapproves of him hanging around with kids who are obsessed with ‘cameras and monster make-up’. He is particularly miffed at his son keeping company with Alice Dainard (Elle Fanning), whose father Jackson blames for the death of his wife. Yet Joe is undeterred, determined not only to help his friend Charles (Riley Griffiths) finish his zombie movie but to win the affections of Alice. One night when they are out filming they witness something that will change life in Lillian for good, an U.S. Airforce train carrying a deadly secret crashes, and something is unleashed on the town.
With its small town sentiments that make it seem closer to the 40s than the 80s, saturated, beautiful colour scheme and wholesome sensibilities Super 8 makes it clear from the beginning that it is a tribute to the work of Spielberg. But rather than packing the film full of references and in-jokes like the 90 minute exercise in cinematic masturbation that was Simon Pegg and Nick Frost vehicle Paul, Abrams is skilled enough to allow the work of his hero and mentor to gently wash over all aspects of the film without interfering with the wonderfully original ideas at the heart of the film. The nostalgia influences content as well as style, and it is easy to imagine the curfew breaking jaunts into the world of amateur filmmaking were somewhat autobiographical on Abrams’ part.
But while the nostalgic reflection on a simpler era is on display throughout the film, it does not distract Abrams from the task in hand when it comes to delivering thrills. From the monumental din of the train crash through the various encounters with the Air Force and the interstellar visitor the action scenes are fast paced, well shot and most importantly huge and exciting. But there is also a tender emotional core to balance out the action, dealing with the loss of a mother young love and growing up with a great deal of care, and a happy medium is reached between the human story and the alien story within the film. The more intimate scenes are played out superbly by Courtney and Fanning who show a great deal of maturity, and by Chandler who plays Jackson as a genuine, caring and ass kicking character who older viewers can relate to. Less easy to relate to is Charles, an annoying little shit who clearly deserves to get eaten by an alien, or at least given a wee slap. This is no fault on Griffiths’ performance as the character is clearly intended to be irritating, and it doesn’t half work.
Comparisons with E.T are inevitable; young boy from single parent home encounters alien. But Abrams’ film is a different kettle of fish. The alien in Super 8 is not a friendly, cuddly little rubber pensioner. This is a creature hell bent on leaving our shitty planet and prepared to kill anyone he perceives as preventing him doing so. The alien attacks are pretty scary and don’t hold back the violence to an audience clearly more accustomed to it from video games and shopping trips to London. I would go as far as to say Super 8 is the superior film of the two; engaging the audience to the trials of growing up while delivering thrills and frights to match the best alien invasion films intended for a more mature audience.
If J.J. Abrams is to cement his place as the next Stephen Spielberg, if Super 8 does indeed mark the passing of the torch, then there is a lot to look forward to from the director. He shows a love for filmmaking and seems in touch with what mass audiences want. He clearly has a lot of work to do if he is to make the same mark as his hero, but the early signs are good. Perhaps it would be worthwhile for Abrams to look at more serious, adult content for his next film in order to show he has the necessary range to be the new Prince of Hollywood. As far as laying down a marker goes, he has done a great job, and Super 8 will no doubt leave younger viewers with happy memories for years to come.