Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Super 8 - (2011) - Cinema Review (9.5/10)

Simply Super
It's been a while since I felt compelled to write a film review. There has been so much mediocrity in recent months, that I simply haven't felt the enthusiasm, but Super 8 has compelled me.

Set in the late 70s, Super 8 is helmed by writer and director J.J. Abrams, probably better known as the main force behind the series Lost, and the recent reboot of Star Trek. The film follows a group of pre-teen/teen kids as they make their own movie on 'super 8' film (For those who don't know, think of it as the handycam format of its day). In the process of filming a scene, they witness a terrible train crash. As it turns out, their camera filmed something mysterious in the wreckage. The military begin to take over the local area, looking for something that has escaped, whilst our young protagonists begin to solve the mystery themselves as increasingly strange things happen across their town.

The gang discuss the train crash
To put it simply, Super 8 is a nostalgic nod back to the days of E.T., Goonies, Explorers and a whole host of children's films from the late 70s and 80s. Films that captured the essence of childhood, mystery and adventure in a wonderful concoction of feel-good-fun. Bluntly, it has been far too long since someone made a film like Super 8. It is in a different league to even Harry Potter, reminding its viewers how children's films should be made.

Witnessing the super 8 film for the first time
I'll get the very minor flaws out of the way, first. The pivotal train crash of the movie is absurdly over-the-top. To the point where it feels out of place, given the setting and atmosphere of the rest of the movie. It felt like something Michael Bay would have looked at and said “Let's take this down a notch or two.” On top of that, essential characters, vehicles and equipment escape with barely a minor scratch, crack, or bit of dust. Secondly, the tired 'evil humans/military' plot device is overused. It is acceptable given the nostalgic setting and style, but that doesn't stop it being a cliché. Thirdly, J.J. Abrams has brought in his regular associate, Michael Giacchino, to compose the soundtrack. Unfortunately, whilst serviceable, Giacchino doesn't seem to be able to capture the grandeur of those he is following. With Star Trek, he was walking in the footsteps of Jerry Goldsmith and James Horner (at his peak). With Super 8, he is very much following in the footsteps of Goldsmith again, and especially John Williams. Unfortunately, Giacchino just hasn't reached those heights, and fails to embody the musical sense of wonder that could have accentuated events even more effectively. In fact, the music used in the trailer (By James Horner from the film Cocoon) exemplifies this, because the film's own music can't quite compare.

Strange cubes...
Having said all that, I have to stress these are minor flaws in an otherwise superb film. One element that truly helps the atmosphere, is its period setting (Which makes me feel extremely old!). It is a perfect time in which to capture a sense of wonder and enthusiasm, where you can still have pre-teen characters who are not as jaded as their modern counterparts would be. They still have a sense of innocence and lack any contemporary cynicism.

Watching the military clean-up of the train crash
Joel Courtney is excellent as the lead character, Joe Lamb. He looks and acts the part perfectly, not once feeling out of place in the late 70s world. However, the real stand out is perhaps Elle Fanning (Sister of Dakota Fanning) who nails the part of 'token girl in the group of boys', without feeling like a 'let's appeal to the girls too' addition. Sometimes in these kind of films, the romantic interest for the young male can often come over as excessively mature, or at the very least the archetypal 'inaccessible school beauty'. Although there is a hint of this in her first introduction, after that point she is simply one of the gang. The romance (such as it is for this type of film) feels completely natural and sweet.

The film as a whole builds its pace nicely, never rushing things for the sake of getting to the whiz-bang effects. Super 8 definitely puts its story and characters first, allowing them to pull us into its adventure and mystery all the deeper. The nods to its inspirations are often clear, but never blatant to the point of copying. For example, a family scene around a table with misbehaving children is reminiscent of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, there are echoes of Invaders from Mars, a character similar to the young lead of Critters, a shot overlooking the town at night that is clearly a wink to a shot in E.T., as well as numerous other films. However, these 'nods' work extremely well. They tread the fine line between drawing a smile of familiar nostalgia, without pulling you out of the film by being too obvious.

The standard by which many contemporary children's films are compared, tends to be Harry Potter. So with that in mind, I will say this. If someone told me they could only see the final Harry Potter film or Super 8, and asked which they should see, I would recommend Super 8 without a second's thought. There isn't even really a comparison. The unbridled enthusiasm and fun of the character's short film over the end credits, sums it up perfectly (Remember to stay in your seat and watch).

Watching in wonder
It is possible that modern youngsters may find Super 8 too slow or lacking in immediate special effects (Which could explain the over-enthusiastic train crash). However, I hope they give it a chance. This is the way children's films used to be, and there are no reasons why they can't be again. They embody a childhood sense of wonder, excitement, mystery, adventure and friendship that will entrance the young into dreaming of their own adventures, whilst whisking the old back to the best moments of their youth.


Image Credit: © 2011 Paramount Pictures

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