Adults weaned on '80s-era Steven Spielberg classics will no doubt experience a sharp tinge of nostalgia while watching Super 8, and the younger viewers will get an exciting version of those films to call their own thanks to writer/director J.J. Abrams, who stays faithful to both the style and tone of movies such as E.T while slyly infusing them with his own contemporary style. And in an age where children are needlessly shielded from realities of the world, even in fiction, it's undeniably refreshing to see a new fantasy adventure that both refuses to sugar-coat the childhood experience and possesses an actual air of danger.
Not only do the kids in Super 8 swear, but they also have a gun pointed at them by a teacher, run for their lives from a massive train wreck, and make a treacherous dash through a suburban war zone amidst a deafening barrage of military firepower. Yes, parents, this is definitely one instance where you'll have to judge for yourself as to whether this film is suitable for the younger kids.
Long before the Internet, some films actually possessed an aura of mystery in the run-up to opening day. We were never quite sure what we were going to get it was really nice to relive that feeling once again when I finally got round to watching this film. With Super 8, Abrams and company have successfully managed the unique feat of re-creating that experience by crafting an intriguing teaser trailer and ensuring that precious few details of their film were leaked before the release date.
Super 8 is so effective in capturing a very specific moment in time, including the look and tone of the movies released then, that aside from Abrams' trademark lens flares and advanced special effects, it's nearly indistinguishable from the real deal. The youngsters in Super 8 look like real kids instead of glossy imitations; the sense of community harks back to a time before people withdrew into their homes to play video games and surf the Net; and sensitive issues like the death of a parent are handled with a refreshing honesty that doesn't discount intelligence. A conversation between the main character and his father shows Abrams' talent for revealing telling details about his characters through more than simple dialogue, and a confrontation between two friends over a girl later in the film displays the writer's keen understanding of the complex dynamics of adolescent friendships.
As the young lead, Joel Courtney does a commendable job of balancing his character's devastating loss with his devotion to friends and growing feelings for Alice, who is played to perfection by Elle Fanning. It's easy to get cynical about favouritism when it starts to seem like every movie star's relative wants a chance to shine, too, but it's obvious from Elle Fanning's performance here that she would have likely succeeded even without her famous sister, she is just wonderful.
Our bad guy is played by, Noah Emmerich and he achieves Spielbergian villain perfection; early in the film we're told just how far he will go in order to keep his secret safe, and after seeing how he handles his enemies, we have little doubt he has the capacity for true ruthlessness.
And while the effective score may never soar to the majestic heights of John Williams' iconic work in films like E.T. and Raiders of the Lost Ark, it still manages to capture that same distinctive tone in a manner that echoes those great works without straining to re-create them.
If there's any major fault to be found in Super 8, perhaps it's the fact that it traces the structure of Spielberg's own E.T. just a little too closely for comfort. Still, there are enough key differences to make Abrams' take on the material a completely original story in its own right, and anytime a filmmaker chooses to tell his or her own story rather than working from existing material, movie fans have something to be thankful for.
Which leads to one of the last, and perhaps best, ways that Super 8 calls back to the era before every movie was a potential franchise in the making: in the end, we're left not with a cliff-hanger or a sudden sting that indicates the entire story has yet to be told, but with a sense of wonder and amazement as both the emotional and fantastical story arcs draw to a tidy, satisfying close. It's funny how such a simple concept like creating a self-contained story can seem so bold; then again, it pays to remember that Abrams is taking his cues from an experienced master, rather than an eager upstart seeking to ensure career stability for years to come.
A real gem in a sea of mundane if you haven't watched this yet then you should, because until you do, we might not be able to be friends anymore.