When was the last time you saw a shaggy-haired kid with braces or an adolescent writhing uncomfortably in his puppy fat in a Hollywood blockbuster, not as figures of fun but as the heroes?
With its believably awkward characters, Super 8 harks back to an era before movie youngsters of even the gangliest age became seemingly gym-buffed, veneer-teethed and airbrushed to perfection.
The new science-fiction action film from Star Trek and Cloverfield director JJ Abrams tries catch the bottled lightning that Steven Spielberg effortlessly captured again and again with his 1980s Amblin Entertainment output. Abrams and his producer Spielberg damn near succeed, too.
Super 8 may not be an enduring classic like Close Encounters of the Third Kind or ET – The Extra Terrestrial, but it is by far the best “summer” blockbuster of the year so far. It conjures up the wonder and terror, the sadness and elation that made those Spielberg films so special.
Super 8’s plucky heroes live in small-town Ohio in 1979, where they are making a monster movie with the camera that gives the film its name. They get mixed up in military conspiracies and mysterious happenings after they witness the derailing of a train.
The reserved Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) is struggling to make sense both of his own loss and of his relationship to his heartbroken father following the senseless death of his mother in a steel factory accident.
His friends — the chubby and bossy Charles (Riley Griffiths), pyromaniac Cary (Ryan Lee), bespectacled Martin (Gabriel Basso) and the seemingly unattainable dream girl Alice (Elle Fanning) — are the sort of kids you may find in any school now or 30 years ago.
Despite some clunky dialogue, the child actors — especially Courtney and Fanning — are all credible as kids wrestling with life in the twilight zone that separates childhood and adulthood. They’re bright and cheeky without being obnoxious or precocious. Between its action sequences, Super 8 gives them room to joke, to grow, to change.
Like nearly any of Spielberg’s films, Super 8 is unabashedly sentimental. But it rings true even in its soppiest moments because it shares Spielberg’s easy empathy with the shapeless fears and vivid joys that make up the interior life of a creative child. You care about the characters because Abrams does. You sense that he knew them, perhaps even was them in his earlier life.
Much like the gentle indie film, Son of Rambo, Super 8 is also a warm celebration of what cinema means to the fertile young mind. You can easily picture a gap-toothed, pint-sized Abrams, imagination aflame from ET, running around with a film camera trying to capture some magic of his own.
Super 8 features some great cinematography and stirring action set-pieces that rank with Abrams’ best work. There’s a level of suspense in some of its sequences that is all-too often missing in special effects vehicles as well as some genuinely exciting chases and explosions. Thankfully, it’s a plain old 2D film, though it is annoying that cinema complexes are putting good films like Super 8 in their worst theatres to reserve their prime screens for 3D titles.
Super 8 trailer (via YouTube):
Super 8 isn’t without its flaws. When finally revealed, the CGI creature is a little disappointing compared to the one your imagination shapes from the rustles in the bushes and the sound of scurrying feet. And the action-heavy last third of the film drags on a bit longer than it needs to.
That said, fans of Spielberg’s 1980’s films will walk out of Super 8 with a grin on their faces. Smart, thrilling and moving, Super 8 is a reminder that blockbuster films can be so much better when they actually pay a little attention to their characters. — Lance Harris, TechCentral