J.J. Abrams obviously had the misspent childhood that we all dream of. He many not have been off rafting down the great Mississippi with a runaway slave, but he was out there shooting adorable little movies with his adorable little friends. One of those friends grew up to be Larry Fong and, in a move almost as sweet as the movie itself, Fong oversees the cinematography for this summer’s big screen slice of nostalgia, Super 8 (2011).
Super 8 takes place in a small town in middle American whose residents seem to be primarily cantankerous old policeman and rogue balls of tumbleweed. In the midst of this, 13 year old Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) is stoically mourning the death of his mother who – in the most affecting shot of the movie – broke the local metalwork’s ‘300 Days without an accident’ record. His father Jackson (Kyle Chandler) struggles to cope with fathering solo and (one must assume that Abrams is projecting here) resents the fact that his boy spends his time with cameras and monster make-up rather than manly things like…er…guns and engine parts.
However, the key feature of Super 8 isn’t the father/son relationship. It’s not even the relationships between the kids, enjoyable though they are. It’s the relationship between filmmaker and audience. The film clearly harks back to E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) and The Goonies (1985) and the good ol’ fashioned rip roaring adventures of yesteryear. It’s 1980s filmmaking in plot – even if the special effects are turned up to 11 – and there are more lens flares than token Asian kids.
The problems with Super 8 are significant. I find myself constantly tempted to spoil the ending for everyone in order to heighten their enjoyment of the film. The film’s secretive marketing campaign made me genuinely excited to know what was going on, much like early M. Night Shyamalan films kept you on the edge of your guessing seat. The trouble is that the answer awaiting at the end of Super 8 simply isn’t very satisfying.
But don’t let that put you off, because the journey to get to this disappointment is a rewarding one. Abrams’ hero worship of Spielberg doesn’t quite pay off, but he does succeed in geting a cast of cute teens (Courtney, Elle Fanning, Riley Griffiths and others) to run about with cameras in an entertaining manner. Super 8 be wish fulfilment of the highest order (who didn’t want to be chased by monsters or witness a colossal train crash when they were a child?) but it’s a very cinematic event at the same time. After all, some of the best cinema is simple wish fulfilment.
If you’ve got a strong enough stomach for the clichés and plot contrivances then there’s a lot of fun to be had with Super 8. In the world of blockbusters, it’s certainly more Harry Potter than Transformers, driven by characters rather than big noisy things hitting other noisy things. Some people will find Abrams’ work too referential to be truly original, but the man who made Star Trek (2009) vaguely tolerable to non-Trekkies has scored a winner with the year’s most by the numbers blockbuster.