Who likes The Goonies? Everyone right? J.J. Abrams certainly does. So much so he’s made a bit of a modern love up to that early 80s style of kids adventure movie that wasn’t afraid to be a little action packed and occasionally scary. It’s a style of kids film that has been lost over the years. These days too many kids films are full of dumb jokes that even kids struggle to find funny and usually involve some actor trying his hardest to flush his career down the pan. Does anyone honestly think any kids are gonna grow up with fond memories of films such as The Tooth Fairy or The Pacifist? What kids want to see is giant fecking robots blowing stuff up. But other than that they wanna see other kids having adventures and getting into scrapes. As much as I’m not a fan at least the Harry potter films got that sort of right. So what did I think of Super 8’s attempts to bring back this style of kids film? Click the link to find out.
Super 8 is really 2 films squashed into one. Even J.J. Abrams admitted this. Apparently he wanted to make a film about some kids trying to make a film but was worried studios wouldn’t back it so he chucked in some alien based story he had from another idea and BAM, Super 8. the story follows Joe (Joel Courtney) as he and his friends set about making a zombie film for a local competition. His friend Charles (Riley Griffiths) has convinced a girl from the school called Alice (Elle Fanning) to appear in his film so the main character can have a wife. He actually even explains the thematic reason behind this quite correctly. Not often a Hollywood film like this will explain story telling convention right to your face. Joe and Alice begin to hit it off which normally would be fine except that Joe’s mother has recently died in a work accident that Joe’s father blames on Alice’s. Things are going well though until some production value in the form of a train comes shooting through the station and promptly crashes all other the place. What was the trains cargo? You’ll have to watch to find out. Or I could just tell you. It’s full of little cubes and an alien. Of course there’s an alien. This is J.J. Abrams we’re dealing with here.
It’s almost like another film comes crashing right through the film the kids are making. Kind of a nice concept really. Charles and Joe begin to use the crash and the ensuing military presence to add production value to their shoot. Not a bad bit of guerilla film making there. Gradually weird stuff starts happening around town. People go missing. Dogs do a runner and for some reason lots of cars are now minus their engines. The film mostly stays with the plans of the kids to make their film but it’s wrapped around their attempts to find out just what was on board that train and Joe’s attraction to Alice against both their fathers wishes. At the same time Joe’s dad is trying to figure out just what the military are hiding from him. Plenty of plot threads to juggle then.
Mostly these threads are handled adequately. There are two I take issue with. Firstly Jackson and Louis (Joe and Alice’s parents respectively) have issues surrounding the death of Jackson’s wife. There’s tension between them as you’d expect but it’s all resolved in a scene that feels utterly throw away and probably doesn’t even last a minute. It literally feels like Abrams got to the end of of the script and realised he had to quickly resolve that sub plot. One cup of coffee and 10 minutes later and Abrams was done.
The second issue is with what you’d expect to be a plot device for later. Joe picks up one of these small cubes that fell off the train. You’d think the Air Force types collecting those things up would notice that one has gone missing and would probably be going after the kids they saw making an escape from the crash site. What actually happens is Joel looks at the cube for a bit, it changes shape a little off camera with no explanation and then shoots off through a wall. Joe doesn’t chase after it. He never makes an effort to find out just what it did. He doesn’t use it to activate some alien technology or to save the day. We see it semi-embedded into a location central to the film’s finale later but Joe doesn’t so he makes no revelation. Basically this plot element goes nowhere and serve no purpose. It almost feels like they dropped a plot thread from the script but forgot to remove the whole thing.
Those are really my only major issues with Super 8 as a whole though. The film is well made, albeit with an abundance of lens flair in places. The CGI is exceptional particularly in the train crash sequence. The main performances from Joel Courtney and Elle Fanning are quite solid. Elle especially puts on a performance that shows more nuance and maturity than anything her superstar sister ever did. She may be the Elizabeth to Dakota’s Mary-Kate & Ashley. I dunno if it was on purpose but the rest of the kids out on some very 80s style performances. There’s something uncanny about just how much they sound like they come from The Goonies or other such films.
Direction is solid, as you’d expect from Abrams, but people saying this is just a Spielberg rip off need to learn what Spielberg does differently to other directors. For example, a moment that could have been shot like a Spielberg reveal shot isn’t. This is because this is Abrams style. When Spielberg does a reveal it usually plays out like this, and he does this in quite a few of his films. The characters are travelling, one or more of them see something off screen, they move to get a better look, they remove some sort of obstruction from their view, sometimes they’ll make other characters look without saying a word, wonder builds on their eyes and then the Jurassic Park theme hits. Don’t believe me? Watch the clip I’ll post next, then go find the same scenes in other Spielberg films. There’s a lot more to his style than this of course but this distinction shows that Super 8 isn’t just a love up to him. It may be thematically so but technically it’s all Abrams.
Overall Super 8 is a damn enjoyable film and could easily become the sort of film kids will grow up to have fond memories of. It works as a kids film and as an adult film which is key to it having lifelong appeal. This is rare these days. This is the sort of film that will still be making money for Abrams’ Bad Robot productions 20 years down the line and it’ll be because kids watching it today will be making their future kids watch it. Super 8 isn’t perfect by any means but it’s a cut above the norm and deserves to be viewed.