Super 8: Close Encounters of the Reel Kind
U/A; Sci-fi, Drama
Dir: J J Abrams
Cast: Joel Courtney, Riley Griffiths, Elle Fanning, Kyle Chandler, Ron Eldard
Rating: * * * (out of 5)
It would be too easy to call Super 8 a tribute to early Steven Spielberg movies, such as E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Named after the film format that introduced nearly every filmmaker that lived in the '70s (including Spielberg and, subsequently, Abrams as well) to movie making, it also owes a fair amount of its aesthetic to modern monster movies like Cloverfield as well as the earliest M Night Shyamalan films.
The tone of the film, set in a small American town in the summer of 1979, is accurately retro. Capturing a bunch of close-knit friends shooting for a film when they happen to witness a horrific and mysterious train accident (a brilliantly executed sequence), the first half of Super 8 is an exceedingly charming and old-fashioned sci-fi drama. Joe Lamb (Courtney), the son of a dedicated police officer (Chandler) is coming to terms with the loss of his mother in a freak accident. At the same time, he's also helping best friend Charles (Griffiths) make a low-budget zombie flick. This short film, a hilarious cross between Dawn of the Dead and Chinatown, appears during the end credits and is easily one of the best things about Super 8.
It also benefits from an excellent cast of young actors, especially Courtney (reminiscent of Patrick Fugit from Almost Famous) and Griffiths. However, the most exceptional performance in the cast comes from Fanning who plays Alice Dainard, an older girl acting in Charles' movie who becomes the object of Courtney's affection. Elle may just be better than her extremely talented older sister Dakota, given her subtler screen presence.
Super 8 unravels in its second half when it breaks its own Hitchcockian rule: What the audience can't see terrifies them far more than what they can. After the kids witness the train crash, strange things start happening. People and pets start disappearing. Entire engines vanish from cars. Lights start flickering on and off at random. Tight-lipped army personnel come and start sanitising the accident site. Till here, its sci-fi intrigue at its best, tempered with deliberate hilarity (props to Abrams' enjoyable and prescient dialogue). Michael Giacchino's sublime background score -- featuring lush, John Williams-like orchestration -- only adds to the charm.
However, once the 'cause' is revealed on camera, the story loses much of its edge. Abrams' trademark Dutch angles and lens flares (which work really well here given the period setting) make way for generic CGI work that makes it seem all too familiar. Logic also takes a beating when Joe and his buddies suddenly seem to develop a lot more pluck than they should have as 12-year-olds. The final sequence mistakes melodrama for wide-eyed Spielbergian nostalgia and, unfortunately enough, undoes some of the good work done by the script in previous reels.
The good news is that these missteps are not a huge deterrent to what is otherwise a thoroughly enjoyable sci-fi drama. After the ghastly Transformers movies, it's good to finally watch a Spielberg production (he serves as executive producer here) live up to his legacy.