Super 8 arrives in the usual cloud of JJ Abrams of secrecy that has surrounded his previous projects, fortunately once again this secrecy only increases the joy of the final product – the less you know about the structure of the film beforehand the better because of the sheer joy that comes from seeing something so lovingly crafted unfold before you. Abrams is up to his usual tricks of letting you think you know what film you’re going to get before pulling the rug from under you – yes there’s an alien involved but come the end of the film that isn’t what you care about, for Abrams story and characters remain king.
Much has been made in the media about this being a love letter to Spielberg, but that’s a little of a disservice to the film. It’s a love letter to film in general, film before commercialism and consumer tie-ins became more important than creating something truly original, it wants you to remember the pre-multiplex days when you used to have to cue around the block to see the latest film, when you didn’t know much beyond a brief advert before another film dimly remembered from your last visit, a time when word-of-mouth was what gave a film “must see” credibility. Nostalgia has tinged all of his films before, but here it’s presented as un-ironically as possible – this is a shout to times when things were easier. What modern teenage audiences will make of it I don’t know (the group I saw it with all clearly remembered those halcyon days of the Eighties) but the strength of the storytelling should make the attraction.
This film has a plot, and characters you care about (and that the director clearly cares about), something in short supply in the blockbuster these days. Not that it isn’t thoroughly modern as well – an Act One train crash has an intensity that leans more towards horrifying reality than action sequence, and the air of paranoia & mistrust throughout leans heavily on the language established in The X-Files and the like – but these are a modern film-maker using the current tools available to make his story accessible to all. If Spielberg has moved with the times (and gotten somewhat darker in his outlook in the process) then here it’s an attempt to indicate that at it’s heart film doesn’t change that much, it just becomes easier to do some things with new technology (hilariously commented on within the film that a rush job for processing will still take three days).
One thing Abrams has clearly taken from the Spielberg book is the ability to direct children. Very few directors seem to get kids (and big kids) want to see kids that are like them; funny, at times a little lost in the world, occasionally rude, but fundamentally decent. The performances are wonderful, a sheer joy to behold – with both Elle Fanning and Joel Courtney in particular selling the fact that despite everything that’s going on around them the most difficult thing they’re dealing with is the fact that they might actually like someone. The adults too are treated with similar respect rather than as the butt of the kid’s jokes, and certainly the two respective father figures emerge as sympathetic characters – again lost in the world – like the kids.
The whole film moves on with an economy of storytelling that means it never slows or lacks pace (although it also never feels rushed, emotion not explosion is the key here) – the opening minute tells you more about the principal characters with absolutely zero dialogue than many films fit into the first ten minutes – and nothing is given time that doesn’t tell you something about the characters lives. Even the film within the film (played in full over the end credits – stick around) has its place, these are kids with imaginations that get them into trouble rather than the delinquent youth of other films, it’s a light touch but perfect within the context of everything else. Elsewhere it’s technically superb (I suspect it was shot digitally and then processed afterwards, it manages to look like film stock from the period) with minimal CGI intrusion, and in these times of vastly inflated budgets this must be one of the cheapest bang-for-buck films for a long time (just shy of $50 Million – that’s less than a quarter of Potter’s budget).
In a summer once again dominated by sequels, comic adaptations, books & TV shows this really should be applauded for daring to be different for taking the chance. It’s probably the best pure summer film for a long time – and that’s not just the nostalgia getting to me.