Super 8
Monday, June 20, 2011 at 9:30PM
Matthew Kopelke in Film

Super 8 is one of those movies that I have been thoroughly looking forward to for quite some time. Quite aside from the teaser trailers and regular pre-release hype, there was one single element that got me hooked on wanting to see this movie - the interactive teaser trailer present in Valve’s recent game release Portal 2. The moment I was able to wander around about 5 minutes of the film’s setting and plot I was definitely interested in seeing where this sucker was going to go. So it was with great excitement that earlier today I popped along to my local Event Cinema, grabbed myself a Gold Class seat, ordered a pizza and some beer, and sat back and watched the latest cinematic output from JJ Abrams. So, was it actually as good as I had hoped it would be? Absolutely it was - in fact, in some ways it was better than I could have ever hoped it to be. Read on to find out precisely why!

The film focuses on Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) and his friends, as they attempt to make their own super 8 movie involving a zombie invasion. One night whilst filming one of the more crucial scenes, Joe and friends witness a spectacular train crash which allows something to escape into the wild. Over the subsequent days, while the military clean up the mess created by the train crash, both people and equipment in the town begin to go missing, and no one is able to work out why. It’s only when the true alien menace of the threat is revealed, and Joe’s involvement in the disappearances becomes a lot more personal than he thought it would, that events turn into a life and death struggle for everyone involved. Along the way, Joe learns a lot about life, love, and how a great big CGI space alien monster thing can bring people together in the most unexpected of ways.

OK, so my pottered plot summary isn’t going to win any awards for coolness, but the fact is that Super 8 is a hard movie to describe. On the one hand, it’s a sci-fi monster movie, one that is in quite a classic vein - think ET mixed with almost any 1950s B-movie you care to mention. On another hand, it feels like an episode of The Wonder Years with said sci-fi monster movie vein chucked in for good measure - almost as if JJ Abrams wasn’t confident in the character interactions and performances to carry the movie alone. The sad thing is, the sci-fi element of the film is really quite weak, particularly in terms of the resolution to the alien plotline. Where the movie truly succeeds is in the interpersonal character stuff, with a great dramatic story here about a young lad trying to come to terms with the loss of his Mum, and how young love can sometimes be a great cure for sadness.

The reason why the character stuff works so well in the film is because of the simply amazing cast that Abrams has assembled, and here I want to pay particular attention to the child actors employed to play Joe Lamb, Charles Kaznyk, Alice, and the rest of the group of kids. This really is where the true Wonder Years vibe came from. Normally I hate watching child actors in American films, but here the kids do some amazing stuff, and carry an entire film almost on their own. The adult actors are all very good, as they should be I guess, but plaudits to Joel Courtney as Joe Lamb for creating such a compelling lead performance. Riley Griffiths as Charles is very good also, while Elle Fanning is great as the female lead. Seriously, I cannot overstate how good these child actors are - they are amazing. Hopefully they all go onto great careers as adults, but right now they are damn good.

Generally speaking the movie looks and sounds fantastic, particularly so given the budget was only set at $50m. Some of the special effects sequences in the film are exceptionally good, with one particular highlight being the train crash that happens about 25 minutes into the film. While it does go on for a bit longer than it probably needed to (you get the idea about 30 seconds before the sequence finishes), it didn’t really bother me given how damn nice it looked. The monster was OK, I guess, but it never really held any menace once it was revealed in its full CGI glory. Like this sort of element in all sci-fi movies, the monster is always so much more effective when it isn’t seen. Still, it looked nice enough, so I guess that counts on one level. JJ Abrams’ regular composer, Michael Giacchino, turned in another solid score as well, but then I didn’t expect anything less from him.

Overall, I have to say that I thoroughly loved Super 8, but in the end not for the reasons I originally thought I would prior to going into the cinema. While the alien threat itself was sound, the way it was resolved was quite ham-fisted and unsatisfying. On the other hand, I was completely blown away by the strength of the dramatic elements within the script, and how effortlessly these were handled by what was a very impressive cast of child actors. While you’re likely to see Super 8 for the sci-fi elements present, the fact is you’ll likely walk away more impressed with the themes the script deals with. A lot of reviewers out there have said that this is JJ Abrams doing his best homage to the work of Steven Spielberg, and that is true I guess - this really is the love-child of ET mixed in with The Goonies with a fair slab of The Wonder Years bringing it all together. Super 8 is a super film.

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