September 20, 2013

Super 8 (2011)

When Steven Spielberg was a kid he used to borrow his parents' super 8 film camera and make his own movies. One of them, Amblin', even inspired the name of his production company many years later. When J.J. Abrams was a kid he used to watch movies directed or produced by Spielberg, including E.T. the Extraterrestrial, The Goonies and Explorers. Jump a few decades into the future and we have Super 8. It is Abrams' tribute to the Spielberg films of his youth, combined with a knowing reflection on Spielberg's childhood movie-making.

14 year-old Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) is mourning the death of his mother in an industrial accident while struggling to connect with his grieving father Jack (Friday Night Lights' Kyle Chandler). With his friends Joe is shooting a zombie movie using a Super 8 camera. When they sneak out one night to shoot a scene for their movie, the kids witness a horrific train crash and get drawn into a deadly mystery involving a monster, power outages across the town and an invasion by the US military.

It would be easy to dismiss Super 8 as a bland exercise in nostalgia, since it is to a large extent a deliberate pastiche. That would ignore, however, the numerous stand-out elements of the piece: great performances, clever scripting, strong camera-work and a career-best orchestral score by regular Abrams collaborator Michael Giacchino. I personally thought it was one of the better Hollywood productions of 2011; not as iconic as Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, but certainly heads and shoulders (in some cases several body-lengths) ahead of films like Transformers: Dark of the Moon, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides and Cars 2.

I've also seen several online critics compare Super 8 unfavourably to Attack the Block, writer/director Joe Cornish's lower budget film that was released in the same year. Such comparisons are, to be honest, inaccurate and lazy: while both films feature youthful protagonists and aliens, the similarities pretty much stop there and the films clearly appeal to very different tastes.

The screenplay to Super 8 is a solid, highly enjoyable tribute to 1980s Amblin Entertainment productions, and deliberately hits most of the same emotional beats as those Spielberg-produced films: broken families that must be repaired, kids put in extraordinary amounts of danger, and a certain degree of warm sentimentality. What lifts the film for me from an entertaining pastiche to a genuinely brilliant movie are the performances that Abrams draws out his young cast. Much as Henry Thomas' performance in E.T. helped sell that movie, newcomer Joel Courtney and Elle Fanning both give a huge amount of depth and nuance to their roles. Fanning is particularly impressive. Adult supporting actors such as Kyle Chandler and Ron Eldard are also very good, and add another layer of texture to the story.

This is one of those films that I enjoy more every time I watch it. I think it was, while well reviewed, overlooked quite badly in 2011. Not many critics claimed the film wasn't any good, but few claimed it was actually as good as it was - and is. This is a great, emotionally honest, well paced and plotted science fiction adventure movie, and is right up with Source Code and Rise of the Planet of the Apes as one of the best SF movies of its year.

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