Super 8 (2011)

Four months after having lost his mother in a gruesome mill accident, 13-year-old make-up artist and model builder Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) is trying hard to help best friend Charles (Riley Griffiths) finish his movie. Using the skills of leading man Martin (Gabriel Basso), special effects meistro Cary (Ryan Lee) and Preston (Zach Mills), and having hired Alice (Elle Fanning) – the daughter of the man largely blamed for the death of Joe’s mother – as the film’s talented heroin, the budding filmmakers find themselves shooting a military train wreck for some precious production values. Catching footage of an escaped creature, the friends must work together and overcome their parents’ biases if they are to survive the devestation and finish their Super 8 mm film.

It’s no secret that Super 8 owes a great debt to Spielberg’s work of the ’80s; heck, the man even serves as producer. Paying dividends to everything from E.T. to The Goonies, Super 8 is a glowing love letter to the decade’s family adventure movies, a kids’ film to grow old with and a powerful meditation on love and loss (not unlike last month’s Potter) rather than the contemporary equivalent starring talking animals and that guy from Mall Cop. It feels almost vintage, a two hour vacation from adulthood that harks back to everything you remember loving as a child, a few lens flares and pixels away from being an actual blast from the past.

This is Abrams’ movie, however, and his fingerprints are all over it. Lens flares aside, it is a film about passion, adventure and daddy issues, all wrapped up in an ensemble piece of filmmaking that has sometimes startling emotional integrity. Bringing the same sense of family to this as he has done previously with Star Trek and even Mission Impossible 3, it is an absolute joy to spend time in these kids’ company, the film’s heart characteristically enveloped in a stunning Hollywood sheen and pitch-perfect soundtrack.

After all, if it wasn’t for Abrams’ young cast Super 8 would just be one big special effect. Though the creature when it is finally revealed does manage to impress – the purposeful graininess of the print helping to hide any CGI design shortcomings – it is the kid cast that ultimately keeps you from nit picking. Many have said it, but even if a giant alien monster hadn’t crash-landed in their town Super 8 would still have been a hugely satisfying piece of filmmaking, so strong were the ensembles’ performances.

Courtney’s Joe is the perfect cipher; an every-kid who acts as a likeable control, he draws attention to his friends’ idiosyncrasies while grounding the fantastic in relative normality. He may not be the director, but this is nevertheless his movie and is all the better for it. Earnest, steadfast and heroic, Joe is countered by an assortment of outcast-types who share his enthusiasm and appreciation for film. While Fanning junior shoulders most of the heavy-duty emotion, and to truly gut-wrenching effect, Griffiths, Basso, Lee and Mills provide much of the comic relief, though each with enough character to affect as well as amuse.

However well played these relationships may be, however, Super 8 is by no means ruined by its science fiction pretences. As tense as it is touching, the film teases its big bad with the utmost capability. Like Cloverfield’s monster, Super 8‘s creature may lack the iconic pizzazz of other creature feature favourites, but it serves its purpose with an understatement and competence that befits the film’s thematics. Called Super 8, the film’s loyalty lies elsewhere, the creature serving beautifully as catalyst rather than jarringly as the film’s core.

One thing’s for sure, J. J. Abrams knows how to make a great movie. Super 8 has it all: production values, stakes and performances that more often than not leave you utterly speechless. The film – both within a film and the feature itself – is as fun to watch as it looked to make. In a sea of superheroes and sex-comedies, Super 8 is a breath of fresh – if welcomingly old fashioned – air. Compelling, heart-stopping and packing some seriously impressive performances, Abrams’ latest is the best Spielberg movie Spielberg never made. And then some.