Close Encounters of a Pastichey Kind
Well, well: it looks like the wheels of Hollywood spin ever faster. It seems like only a few weeks ago that I was writing about James Gunn's deranged vigilante movie Super (come to think of it, that's because it was), and yet here we are with Super 8 already in theatres. The first six sequels somehow completely passed me by, I'm afraid, and to be honest I don't quite see how the two storylines are connected, but never mind.
Super 8 is the greatest Stephen King adaptation Steven Spileberg has ever made, which is rather odd given that it's an original story written and directed by J.J. Abrams. Given Abrams' history of doing violence to narratives (his own in Lost and to other people's following what he did to Star Trek continuity), it comes as something of a surprise that Super 8 is a relatively straightforward story.
Set in 1979, the main character is Joe (Joel Courtney), a teenage boy who, along with his father (Kyle Chandler), is struggling to cope with a recent bereavement. Joe finds escape in helping his friends make a super low-budget horror movie on a super 8 camera (hence the title of the movie). While secretly filming one night, the kids are witnesses to a spectacular train crash (and boy, is it spectacular!), which litters the area with what looks like mysterious space lego.
The next day a military task force has set up shop in town, its members clearly in search of something. Strange occurrences continue – every dog in town runs away. Electronic and mechanical equipment disappears without trace. The town sherriff mysteriously vanishes. Joe and his friends are still preoccupied with finishing the movie, though – well, Joe himself is perhaps a little more concerned with his growing friendship with a girl (Elle Fanning) who's also in their film…
The best recommendation I can give to Super 8 is that it feels like something made because of a genuine passion for the subject matter. In an era when it sometimes feels like every blockbuster is a sequel, a remake, a reboot or a comic book or video game adaptation, the fact that it is an original story gives it a tremendous and very welcome freshness. (Yes, all right, it's not actually a sequel to Super.)
Beyond this, the most striking thing about the movie is its painstaking and almost wholly successful recreation of the atmosphere and style of the kinds of movies that Steven Spielberg was making three decades ago. This, so far as I can see, is the only reason why Super 8 is a period piece. Occasionally Abrams cuts loose with major CGI sequences – the train crash, and a few others I won't describe in detail – but the rest of the time it's all very low key and naturalistic, with nothing that couldn't have appeared in a movie made at the time this is set.
Abrams gets uniformly strong performances from a largely unknown cast and – his love of lens flare excepted – apes Spielberg's own directorial style with great deftness. There's an element of sweety-schmaltziness to some parts of this story that I found slightly overdone, while in other places there were elements I found a little bit too obvious. Despite all this, it's an impressive job – quite what Steven Spielberg himself made of it (he is, after all, the producer of the movie) I can't imagine. Presumably he took the homage in the spirit in which it was intended.
At its heart, though, Super 8 is much more of an unashamed B-movie than anything Spielberg was making in the late 70s or early 80s. Deep down it's more like a Stephen King story (not that there isn't a considerable intersection between King and Spielberg on occasion). I am obviously loath to go into too much detail here, as the central mystery of the film is very carefully established and satisfyingly resolved.
By the standards of modern blockbuster entertainment, Super 8 feels really rather small-time and restrained – very much a personal project. That said, it's no less engaging or rewarding than any of the other major movies out this summer, and considerably moreso than most of them. Definitely J.J. Abrams' most likeable and accomplished film to date.