movie film review | chris tookey

Super 8

© Amblin/ Paramount - all rights reserved
  Super 8 Review
Tookey's Rating
9 /10
Average Rating
6.64 /10
Joel Courtney , Kyle Chandler, Elle Fanning
Full Cast >

Directed by: J.J. Abrams
Written by: J.J. Abrams

Released: 2011
Origin: US
Colour: C
Length: 111

Super indeed.
Reviewed by Chris Tookey

Bookmark and Share

J.J. Abrams’ ingenious mixture of charming-rites-of-passage kids’ movie with science-fiction-monster-spectacular is better than the other summer blockbusters this year by the same kind of margin that the England cricket team humbled India at Trent Bridge.

It’s not just the most entertaining family film of the summer, it's up there with the classics of its various genres. As a nostalgic rites-of-passage movie, it’s more touching than Rob Reiner’s Stand By Me. As sci-fi action-adventure, it’s as thrilling as Jurassic Park or Abrams’ last hit, Star Trek.

Here’s the reason I was holding off giving five stars to other enjoyable action movies this summer, such as Attack the Block and Captain America. This is a class above them all, the one that can be compared with great family movies such as E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial.

In part, it’s an inspirational love-letter to the process of film-making. The hero of the picture is mild-mannered 12 year-old Joe Lamb (newcomer Joel Courtney). We’re in an Ohio steel town in the 1970s. Joe’s just lost his mother in an industrial accident, and his father (Kyle Chandler), the local deputy sheriff, is too busy to cope with his own grief, let alone the needs of his son. He wants Joe to go off to baseball camp and be a normal child.

But Joe wants to make movies, even bad ones. He loves the creative camaraderie of working with friends, and he enjoys model-making and cosmetic effects, especially fake blood. Joe is happy to leave directing duties to his more confident friend Charles (Riley Griffiths). Charles is a junior Orson Welles, in physical stature as well as ambition, and plans to enter a home-made zombie movie in a national competition.

So they assemble a small cast and crew, including their scarily pyromaniac pal Cary (Ryan Lee) to supervise the special effects, and recruit a leading lady, in the form of the blonde and frighteningly talented Alice (Elle Fanning, pictured).

As Joe powders her face for a night shoot at the local deserted railway station, he gazes adoringly at Alice, in a beautiful scene that captures the exact moment innocence tips over into agonised puberty. The tension is broken first by the need for a “take”, and then by a moment of horrific (and superbly filmed) spectacle, as a military train crashes into a car that has made its way on to the track.

Only Joe notices that the crash was no accident. In the car is the boys’ science teacher (Glynn Turman), badly injured. He issues a terrible warning to the children: “They will kill you. Do not speak of this or else you and your parents will die”.

As if this isn’t thrilling enough, something huge and dangerous has escaped from the train, and a large section of the US military is out to find it. And then all kinds of things start disappearing from the town: car engines, microwave ovens, all the town’s dogs…

I’m not going to spoil the film by telling you any more, but it’s essentially a compendium of ideas from all Steven Spielberg’s classic hits (and a few non-Spielberg successes, such as the under-rated Eight-Legged Freaks) , cleverly combined to make something fascinating and new. This is no accident, as Spielberg is the movie’s producer and was clearly very personally involved.

Some critics are bound to object that the film is no more than pastiche, but I think they’re wrong. Abrams’ picture is a very timely reminder about what’s important in popular film-making. The idea of movies is not just to bludgeon the audience into submission and turn us into passive consumers, it’s to make us feel our humanity, laugh and feel the film is actually about something.

So the special effects are as marvellous as you would expect of a 21st century blockbuster, but the reason this film will endure and inspire is that it makes you care about the characters, believe in their milieu and share in their anxieties and excitement.

It’s probably too scary for very small children, but that’s another way of saying that it delivers plenty of thrills to satisfy grown-ups as well as the teenagers at whom it’s centrally aimed. Though it’s a 12A, I would think most children above the age of nine would be able to handle its intensity.

There’s even a certain amount of depth. The friendship between the children seems real, and all they all give enjoyable, authentic performances of considerable charm. Elle Fanning, who was also terrific in the far inferior Sofia Coppola film Somewhere, is clearly the most exciting female acting talent America has produced since her big sister, Dakota.

The developing relationship between two of the fathers and their respective children feels genuine, too. Kyle Chandler resembles a young Alec Baldwin as Joe’s dad (and I do mean that as a compliment), while Ron Eldard neatly avoids making Alice’s father the kind of melodramatic villain you normally encounter in children’s films.

Other valuable ingredients, which have all too often been missing from 21st century blockbusters, are playfulness and humour. Abrams enjoys toying with the audience’s expectations, and he has fun hiding the creature for most of the movie. This is no mean feat, as it is extremely large.

He also has enormous affection for these children playing at being film-makers, just as he himself did as a teenager, and Spielberg did before him. Stick around for the end credits and you’ll see the film within a film, an enjoyably inept, deliberately badly acted zombie movie enthusiastically made by shambolic amateurs.

It’s delightful, funny and humane – all epithets which apply equally to the main feature. I really, really loved it.

Key to Symbols