Monday, 8 August 2011

'Super 8' review:

Directed by 'Lost' creator and 'Cloverfield' producer JJ Abrams, 'Super 8' is an affectionate homage to the films of Steven Spielberg. Though in this case "homage" seems like too generous a description of a film which is closer in spirit to a greatest hits mixtape and, with Spielberg acting as a producer to oversee his own canonisation, it must surely rank as one of the cinema's greatest acts of narcissism. Not only is every shot, every sound effect and every character archetype stolen wholesale from the Spielberg oeuvre, but Abrams also borrows all his themes and even major plot details - the result being a film that feels wholly derivative and more than a little redundant.

In stitching together 'Super 8', Abrams combines the town meeting scene from 'Jaws', the nocturnal tree-rustling eeriness of 'Jurassic Park' and the absent father business from 'Hook' and 'The Lost World', alongside huge chunks of 'E.T.' and 'Close Encounters'. Whilst the young cast seem modelled, almost like-for-like, on the kids from Richard Donner's Spielberg-produced 'The Goonies'. Aside from his overuse of distracting lens flares, the director's own dubious stamp is only really felt in the familiar brand of mystery, as he withholds information and establishes lots of (eventually meaningless) threads, with the requisite unsatisfying pay-off. In fact, without spoiling the film, all I can say is that the climax of Abrams' story is not only underwhelming, but also wholly baffling as we are asked not to care about all the death and destruction that has come before during a cloying, metaphor-heavy finale that tries desperately to be heart warming and truly fails.

Set in the 1980s for some reason (allowing for tired references to the Cold War and walkmans), the story itself revolves around the meek and kindly Joe (Joel Courtney), a young boy who spends his summer holidays making super 8mm films with his friends: the fat one, the explosives expert one, the nervous one etc. Joe's mother has recently died and his well-meaning, hard-working father (Kyle Chandler), the town's Deputy Sheriff, spends little time with him. This leads him to strike up a forbidden friendship with Alice (Elle Fanning), a rebellious, young teen who agrees to star in the boys' movie. However, things take a turn for the strange when the gang's filmmaking places them at the scene of a spectacular train crash - with the film's big action set-piece out of the way after the first half hour.

Soon the army are on the scene to wage stock military conspiracy against the town and the boys are warned by a kindly old teacher not to tell anyone about what they have seen for their own safety. However, unexplained things start happening in town and, after the Sheriff goes missing, Joe's dad mounts his own investigation into the oddness (which proves ultimately irrelevant). Like the Amblin Entertainment produced family movies of the 1980s, such as 'Gremlins' and the aforementioned 'The Goonies', 'Super 8' pushes hard at the boundaries of its age-rating, with some bloody kills and a bit of swearing as Abrams refuses to patronise the potential young audience members who've been upgraded from 'Mr. Popper's Penguins'.

Yet whist the film definitely counts as something of an upgrade for the oft-abused family crowd, the film's only other audience is the nascent 1980s nostalgia demographic who are being played as cynically as they are ever likely to be. The "spot the Spielberg" nature of the movie will be a lot of fun for this portion of the crowd, but you have to wonder if it wouldn't be a better use of time to re-watch the superior Spielberg originals themselves and give this hollow imitation a miss. Compelling performances from the young cast aside (Fanning and Courtney are brilliant), 'Super 8' is a strange contradiction: seen by some as a beacon of hope amidst the comic book adaptations, sequels and remakes, the summer's only original property lacks a single original idea.

'Super 8' is out now in the UK and is rated '12A' the the BBFC.

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