Okay, that’s quite enough Christmas fare for one year I reckon. Although perhaps we haven’t moved too far away from the general feel of the time of year by going on to review Super 8, a film about families and childhood and overcoming painful loss. Oh, and a massive great alien monster, too.
Super 8 is a film that evokes instant nostalgia: it revives the spirit of the greatest films of my own personal childhood, and specifically those early films of Super 8′s producer Steven Spielberg. It’s hard not to have ET: The Extraterrestrial, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and The Goonies in mind as one watches this film, as well as the finest of Stephen King’s novels set in small-town Maine (It comes particularly to mind, especially toward the end with scenes of the monster in its den) and even the films of Rob Reiner such as Stand By Me in terms of the story of boys growing into young men.
Specifically it’s the way the film recreates and evokes what it’s like to live a normal suburban childhood in “The Most Normal Town In The World Where Nothing Happens” (TM). Most of the film is told through the eyes of a group of kids who are working together on making a no-budget horror movie of their own. The Super 8 of the title refers to the old film-based cameras they’re using, and it takes a little while to realise that Super 8 is not set in some unspecified “anytime” but is instead firmly anchored around 1979, as a mid-story reference to newfangled portable music players called “Walkmans” makes clear along with the evocative soundtrack comprising of hits of the period. In other words, the homage that Super 8 is paying to its Spielbergian antecedents is complete right down to its period setting.
At this point it becomes very hard for me to give an objective review of this film: it’s reviving so many of the sights and sounds (both cinematic and real life) from my own childhood, and the kids here are so close the age I myself was in 1979, that it’s a powerfully accomplished nostalgic syrup from which it’s impossible for me to extract myself and find an objective stance. As far as I’m concerned, this is pretty much how every film should be: a film more focussed on creating a believable atmosphere and authentic setting, of bringing its characters to life and making the real life anxieties and concerns of those characters the real focus of what happens rather than just been an exercise to demonstrate the latest CGI breakthroughs – as we get these days in the latest instalment of the Transformers or Pirates of the Caribbean franchises.
The film takes its time establishing its small town location and the inhabitants thereof. And it also takes a long time to allow the science fiction alien/monster element to build as well, a top-notch demonstration of effective tension building worthy of the masters (i.e. Spielberg again, and also Alfred Hitchcock.) As far as I’m concerned this is time well spent, but I can understand that modern audiences are used to far faster story development and more instant gratification, and I wouldn’t be surprised if many now found this to be a rather slow-paced and possibly even dull film for its first half – perhaps that’s why it didn’t seem to make nearly enough of an impression at the box office when it was on general release earlier in the year. But let me make it quite clear: any modern audience that thinks this way is profoundly wrong, and they should immediately sue Michael Bay, Gore Verbinski, Stephen Sommers et al for the grievous harm inflicted on their artistic sensibilities and for the damaged childhoods that have left them tragically impervious to quality cinematic wonder.
Later on mayhem does break out to sate the modern viewing taste, and it all starts to become a little Cloverfield-ish. But by then it’s earned this freedom because of the amount we have invested in the totally truthful characters who have been wonderfully brought to life by an outstanding young cast who really do feel like a group that have been friends since infants school. Joel Courtney as the lead character Joe Lamb doesn’t make a single misstep in the entire film and is captivating in every frame, despite playing a really quite complex character who is required to develop believably from the introverted grief-stricken boy we meet at the start, to the bravest leader of the gang who has discovered not just his first love but also the courage to let go of his earlier grief in order to start to live again. Elle Fanning (younger sister of Spielberg’s War of the Worlds star Dakota – another film somewhat referenced at times by Super 8) is also terrific as Alice, and her early display of in-film acting talent it both believably raw (so as to be clearly acting) and yet sufficiently glowing to make it easy for us to understand why the rest of the gang of boys instantly fall in love with her on the spot.
Adult stars are thinner on the ground, but Kyle Chandler does a huge amount conveying depth and detailed to a not particularly large role as Joe’s father; Ron Eldard is peculiarly heart-breaking as Alice’s guilt-ridden failure of a single father; and Noah Emmerich gives sufficient nuance to the role of Nelec to avoid him becoming too much of a pantomime villain.
Beware the audio track volume levels, however. The earliest scenes are set just after a funeral and everyone is speaking in hushed tones; the soundtrack continues in that vein for a while and you’ll be tempted to crank up the sounds, but whatever you do make sure you have the remote to hand when it comes to the train station or you (and your long suffering neighbours) will be rocked by the explosion of sound that follows. It’s a really lively, state of the art sound mix which conveys suspense and atmosphere as much through the use of implied audio effects as anything actually on screen, and the Dolby TrueHD 7.1 is stunningly good at bringing this out.
The film looks wonderful throughout. Abrams manages to bring out the beauty even of a nondescript backwater hick town in the middle of nowhere, lost in heartland USA. Rundown houses, struggling factories, peeling paint on wooden doors and sagging chainlink fences all acquire an appealing polished veneer under Abram’s eye, with a lovely mix of shadows and colours playing over every scene, nicely captured by the immaculate high-def transfer on Blu-ray. The effects are seamlessly integrated – not a single image feels false or overtly CGI’d, although the monster when finally revealed is rather disappointingly generic – and the main train sequence is stunningly conceived and executed to take your breath away, coming as it does more or less out of the blue compared with what’s gone before.
One thing, though: Abrams really needs to do something about that lens flare gimmick. Originally it was stylish, audacious and new; then it came a little too easy to mock by being self-referential and clichéd. Now it’s just irritating, self-parody and distracting. Abrams is far too good to need such little tricks, and now his film-making has grown up to such an extent as evidenced here, he can surely put away his lens flare filter for good.
(Also check out the cinema review of the film over at Generation Star Wars.)