In the months leading up the release of Super 8, there were rumours about how the movie was JJ Abrams’ tribute to the film’s producer, Steven Spielberg. This seemed unfair, especially since Spielberg’s produced several films that bear no resemblance to his oeuvre (Transformers: Dark of the Moon, for one), and JJ Abrams is a serious talent in his own right (he created Lost and directed the sleek 2009 reboot of Star Trek). Yet, once the film released, it turned out the rumours were accurate. Super 8 is strongly reminiscent of early Spielberg, especially Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. Kids on bicycles in tense situations. Check. Townsfolk looking up in wonder at bright lights in the sky. Check. Henry Thomas in the lead. Check. (Okay, it’s Joel Courtney, but they’re dead ringers for each other).
So Super 8 is definitely Spielbergian. Sadly, it isn’t quite Spielberg. Six kids working on a Super 8 zombie movie witness a strange train crash. After they pick themselves up, they hear a loud banging from inside one of the derailed bogies. As they watch from a distance, something indistinct and animal-like breaks out and disappears into the night. Almost immediately, sinister military men arrive and refuse to say anything useful. It transpires that the escaped creature is an alien, and this time it isn’t phoning home, but roaring, mauling and slaughtering its way back. What starts out as a fluent piece of ’70s nostalgia turns into a monster movie that’s high on spectacle and low on logic.
In its stronger first half, before we actually see the creature, Super 8 conveys a real sense of what it must have been like to be young and film-crazy in small-town USA in the ’70s. Abrams, his friend and cinematographer Larry Fong and the film’s producer Bryan Burk all started out this way, making genre film rip-offs in their backyards (in a neat bit of back story, Abrams was given the chance to restore Spielberg’s own 8mm films as a teenager). The affection the director has for these kids and their cheesy horror flick is palpable. The younger actors respond beautifully, especially the self-possessed Elle Fanning and Riley Griffiths as the young director.
There’s plenty of trivia on the audio commentary, as well as in the two mini-features “The Dream behind Super 8” and “The Visitor Lives”. None of these is successful in explaining why the town suddenly becomes a war zone, or why exactly all the dogs disappear. What they do make clear is the extent to which everyone on the project was in awe of the Spielberg. Abrams, Fong and Burk spend half the audio commentary’s running time trying to come up with a suitable question to message the man; the next half is spent anxiously waiting for his reply. As always, you can rely on Spielberg to transport grownups back to childhood.