In the summer of 1979, a group of kids in a small Ohio town are making a homemade zombie movie on glorious 8mm film. Special effects whiz kid Joe (Joel Courtney) still has not come to terms with his mother’s death in an industrial accident, but finds himself smitten with aspiring actress Alice (Elle Fanning). Problem is, Alice’s drunken father (Ron Eldard) was indirectly responsible for the death of Joe’s mom and his stern father, local deputy Jackson Lamb (Kyle Chandler) is none too happy about their burgeoning adolescent romance. While shooting a scene for their movie, Joe, Alice, budding filmmaker Charles (Riley Griffiths), pyrotechnics obsessed Cary (Ryan Lee) and geeky actor Martin (Gabriel Basso) witness a spectacular train wreck caused by their old biology teacher Dr. Woodward (Glynn Turman, in a nod to his role in Gremlins (1984)), an event that unleashes something monstrous. Soon people and electrical appliances start disappearing around town. The army arrives to initiate a cover up. Only the kids can get to the bottom of what is really going on and maybe save their whole town.
Super 8 is a movie whose intentions are so admirable one dearly wants to embrace it, yet the film is undone by nagging inconsistencies. Writer-director J.J. Abrams crafts an unabashed homage to the groundbreaking sci-fi family films of Steven Spielberg, a choice which itself drew hostility in some quarters since Spielberg remains a polarising figure. What his detractors fail to acknowledge is that Spielberg was the man who humanized the summer blockbuster and in an age of CGI spectacle but emotional sterility, we could do with more of his human touch. Throughout his career, though specifically in the two films Super 8 harks to: Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and E.T. The Extraterrestrial (1982), Spielberg argued our sense of wonder is what binds and defines us as human beings, but Abrams has a more ambiguous message to impart. The underlining theme is that we must learn to endure in the face of tragedy, lest we become embittered, vindictive mutations of ourselves, but the lack of moral clarity works against the worthy sentiment. Given the mysterious menace is on a homicidal rampage for two thirds of the film, it is hard to get as dewy eyed over the climax as we were when Elliot said goodbye to E.T. or Roy Neary stepped aboard that Mothership.
Ironically, where Abrams most succeeds in aping Spielberg is with the most underrated aspect of his craft, namely his ability to draw vivid relationships and evoke universal childhood anxieties. There is a clever plot parallel in how the disappearance of the sheriff leaves Jackson at the mercy of the confused and resentful townsfolk (look out for Homer Simpson himself, Dan Castellaneta in a small role), much the same as his wife’s passing left Joe in the hands of a man who cannot understand his own son. By far the sweetest, most affecting aspect of the film is the heartfelt romance between Alice and Joe, highlighted in the charming moment he suddenly realises how great an actress she is and later, falls for her in zombie makeup. Joel Courtney and Elle Fanning are excellent. While some of the other youngsters err towards The Goonies style of childish over-emoting, their amateur movie-making efforts are genuinely endearing and may strike a chord with other aspiring young filmmakers. There is no real reason why this film takes place in 1979, but Abrams produces an affecting ode to an analog childhood of monster model kits, smudgy comic books, primitive videogames and stadium rock. That the children’s film-within-a-film is a zombie flick and not a UFO adventure, suggests this is as much influenced by George A. Romero as by Spielberg. In fact it lifts a gag from Night of the Living Dead (1968) when Charles remarks of the disaster “It’s on the news, so that means it’s real.”
Although Abrams does not exert the same grip on the human pulse as Spielberg does, his set-pieces are executed with panache and a subtlety in common with celebrated sequences from Close Encounters, notably the buildup to the approaching menace through electrical devices going haywire and dogs fleeing town. Super 8 builds to a Spielbergian send-off that while visually spectacular is not as cathartic as it ought to be, although the effervescent leads add some welcome emotional weight to their personal subplot and the end credits treat is ingratiating.