Focusing on the family traumas and detective prowess of some pint-sized amateur movie-makers in a fictional 1970s Ohio, JJ Abrams and Spielberg’s labour of love is a trip down memory lane that has had movie geeks salivating over its mysterious and complex viral campaign - complete with “recovered” reels of old film” – for over a year now.
And by God, the wait is worth it. A flawed but palpably heartfelt and masterfully rendered hybrid of action film and human drama, Super 8 takes you back to a more innocent age of film-making, when guts and gore were either laughable or nonexistent and children painted model trains instead of thinking up clever quips and swearing.
Abram’s distinctly Spielbergian opus is set in the made-up town of Lillian, where bossy Charles and his best bud Joe (newcomers Riley Griffiths and Joel Courtney) are making a zombie film with their gang of suburban misfits.
Joe lost his mother in a factory accident not long ago and the film, made on a simple Super 8 camera, is his only escape, while his sheriff dad wallows in grief.
The kids somehow convince the pretty Alice (a very talented Elle Fanning, sister of Dakota) to join them and drive them to the train station late at night so they can film with added “production value” at the insistence of Orson Welles-wannabe Charles.
During some delightfully precocious filming where the boys are transfixed by the lovely Alice, a car drives onto the railway tracks and a passing freight train crashes into it.
Here Abrams is deep in his element; carriages are blasted into the air and all manner of things explode in a scene that is at once thrillingly visceral and yet filled with childlike wonderment.
As mysterious disappearances and military lockdowns follow, the children carry on filming against a backdrop of mounting fear, unaware that Charles’s camera, knocked over in the getaway, has captured footage of the train’s fearsome cargo.
Abrams is a master of suspense, drip-feeding us added layers to the mystery. What are the white cubes, where have the car engines gone, why do Joe and Elle’s parents hate each other… And all the while without revealing the exact nature of the threat itself.
The genius is that this is not, for the most part, a sci-fi thriller. Yes, there is a scary something always lurking around the corner, but the story is about how relationships develop between the children, and with their even more traumatised parents.
Though the characters are pretty thinly drawn – sad kid, bossy kid, crazy kid, and so on - they are sweet and sassy enough to get away with it, while the parallel between Joe’s curiosity over the camera and that of Abrams himself, who has known Spielberg since childhood, is clear.
Movie conceits - like Charles’ assertion that his character needs to fall in love so the audience will care if he dies – are done with a light touch.
The problem is, sadly, that once the curtain is lifted and the “secret” is revealed the drama descends rapidly into standard thriller territory. A Jurassic Park-style scene of carnage on an abandoned bus feels crudely done after 90 minutes of nail-biting suspense and an orgy of special effects fails to make up for the increasing lack of credible storyline.
Would the doped up shopkeeper really agree to drive them? Would Joe’s precious locket really be drawn into an electromagnetic field when all the metal objects surrounding it aren’t moving?
But it is credit to the brilliance of the first half of the film that the failings of the second barely register. Yes, there are plot holes but the whole thing is worth watching again just for scenes like the extraordinarily moving moment when Joe shows Alice the film of his mother.
A surefire hit, Super 8 is a tender homage to a bygone era of film-making with just the kind of modern monster action you’d expect from Abrams.
Now if only the Abrams and Spielberg combo would take on some of the Marvel films…