Action! – Super 8 review

Super 8 – Starring Joel Courtney, Elle Fanning and Kyle Chandler. Directed by J.J. Abrams. Rated M. By Simon Miraudo.

Super 8 is complete. That sounds more like a minimum requirement for a movie rather than grounds for a rave, but it’s astounding just how fulfilling J.J. Abrams’ latest film is. I left feeling content; I had been gleefully entertained, and had felt my emotional strings plucked (no, not like that). Both a loving, unabashed homage to executive producer Steven Spielberg’s past classics and the logical conclusion of Abrams’ oeuvre so-far, Super 8 goes beyond mere nostalgia-porn or geek-lit to become an awe-inspiring celebration of cinema. It belongs alongside Rango and Inglourious Basterds, two wonderful recent films that similarly paid tribute to classic motion pictures and managed to join their ranks at the same time.

The film begins with Michael Giacchino’s tender score introducing us to the fictional town of Lillian, Ohio, circa 1979. An accident at the local factory has claimed the wife of Deputy Sheriff Jackson Lamb (Kyle Chandler), and everyone in town is wondering if the emotionally distant father will be able to take care of his soft-spoken son Joe (Joel Courtney). Months pass, but Jackson’s pain never subsides. Joe distracts himself by working on a zombie film – ‘The Case! Shot on state-of-the-art Super 8!’with his buddies, including pushy director Charles (Riley Griffiths), explosives expert Carey (Ryan Lee) and the haunted young actress/object of both Joe and Riley’s affection, Alice (Elle Fanning). During one late-night shoot, the kids witness a spectacular train crash. When the military take over the clean-up, and a number of local residents go missing, the kids suspect something nefarious is going on, and that perhaps the train held some extra-terrestrial cargo. Thankfully, they’ve got footage of the crash recorded, so as soon as it’s developed, they’ll be able to examine it and look for clues. (Of course, this being the late 70s, it’ll take about three days. And that’s with a ‘rush’!)

As pretty and appealing as those teaser trailers looked for Super 8 (lens flare and all), it could have all gone to hell. There’s nothing worse than being pandered to, especially by filmmakers who use nostalgia as a weapon. As I said in my Tekken review (yes, I reviewed Tekken, and am now calling back to it): “Tekken isn’t the worst film in the world, but anything other than a full-throated condemnation of it is a celebration of nostalgia-abuse; an urge to movie producers to take advantage of our innocuous fond memories and churn them, Rumpelstiltskin-style, into gold.” Had reliable names like Abrams and Spielberg not been attached since the start, we could have fearfully imagined the pitch session in which some Hollywood producers tried to sell the concept of Super 8 via increasingly trite movie-mashups. “It’s The Goonies, but they’re battling the Cloverfield monster!” “The time-travelling Losties meet E.T. and Elliott!” “Jaws … but with Noah Emmerich and the guy from Friday Night Lights! Didn’t J.J. make that show too? He didn’t? Well, same diff.”

Although those combinations might be accurate to some degree, this film is so much more. There’s a difference between imitation and evolution, and Super 8 feels like the latter. Abrams’ doesn’t just cut-copy-paste Spielberg’s iconic imagery; he knows how to create an indelible hero shot just as ably (the film’s finale will inspire viewers’ jaws to drop in the same manner as when Elliott first rode his bike across the face of the moon). The performances, particularly from the young’uns, are so wonderful; the script is so charming and funny and occasionally heartbreaking; the bonus short-film ‘The Case’ that plays during the credits is so fun. For all of its secrets, the film is surprisingly simple and uncomplicated. Some may be disappointed that there isn’t so much under the surface; that the film is just a thrilling sci-fi movie about a bunch of movie-loving kids, made by a movie-loving kid-at-heart. But when all other blockbusters suffer from featuring too many characters, plot bloat and confusing, committee-compiled screenplays, Super 8 is a rare treat. A complete film.

4.5/5

Check out Simon’s other reviews here.

Super 8 arrives in Australian cinemas June 9, 2011.

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