When I first heard about the genesis of Super 8, I was very intrigued. Writer/director JJ Abrams said that, with the film, he wanted to create a throwback to the films that Steven Spielberg produced under his Amblin Entertainment label back in the 1980s. I'm talking about the template that Spielberg created with E.T.: The Extra-Terrestial, and then continued by producing films like Batteries Not Included, Back to the Future, and The Goonies. It didn't hurt that Spielberg joined the production very early on as a producer, with his Amblin Entertainment co-producing it.
I had to mention The Goonies because when it first came out, that's the Amblin movie I heard it likened to the most. And, superficially, I can agree with that, with our band of misfit kids joining together and embarking on an adventure. Watching the film, though, I feel Abrams was kind of doing his own spin on E.T., with an adventure with an alien helping to repair a damaged family.
Only, this time out, E.T. is 20 feet tall, wreaks bloody vengeance on his US government captors, and is a lot more aggressive when it comes to phoning home.
I don't know why I never made it down to the theatre to catch this in the summer of 2011. Abrams did hook me with his typical mystery-laden advertising, with a wonderful "WTF?" teaser we all saw in 2010 in front of Iron Man 2.
To really mimic the feel of those Spielberg films, the film is set in 1979, and our ragtag band of heroes are spending their summer making their own zombie movie with a super-8 film camera. Our hero is young Joseph. His mother worked in the local steel mill, and was killed in an industrial accident. In order to cope, his father, one of the sheriff's deputies in the town, has thrown himself into his work, and as such, father and son are growing apart.
Joseph's best friend is Charles, who's directing the zombie film, and on the last day of school, Charles has big news. He managed to convince Alice, the prettiest girl in school, to play the female lead in their film. Of course, Joseph is crushing on her, but Alice has her damage, too. We learn as the film goes on that Alice's father was the one responsible for the death of Joseph's mother, and he's been attempting to find redemption in the bottom of a bottle. So these two damaged pre-teens from damaged homes begin reaching out to each other.
But I digress. Our filmmakers sneak out one night to record a scene at the local train station, when a passing train derails. The kids narrowly escape from the accident with their lives. Figuring they can use their train derailment footage in the film, the kids go back the next day to film scenes with the train derailment in the background. Joseph - who mainly handles models and special effects on their film - surveys the wreckage and identifies it as a military train. Meanwhile, Joseph's father begins investigating some strange occurrences in town...a rash of missing pets, engine blocks torn out of cars, and then, missing people. Soon, the military descends on the town to take control of the situation. It appears that something escaped from that train, and the kids are launching their own investigation to figure out what happened.
Well, the Spielberg homages are dripping throughout this film. From the 1979 setting, to the kids getting around on their BMX bicycles, to composer Michael Giacchino doing an amazing John Williams homage in the score, all the way up to the ending, which is straight from ET.
That being said, I do have a similar problem as I do with films like the upcoming remake of RoboCop. It's all just a little too slick and polished. I mean, back in the 1980s, those Spielberg films had a remarkable amount of grit to them, as they were actually pretty low-budget by today's standards, and special effects crews were still pretty much figuring out to do stuff.
Most of the characters are pretty good. Joseph, of course, being our hero, gets the main character arc. We see him evolve from still despondent over his mother's death, willing to be just a passive participant, to growing more confident and taking more of a leadership role in the group as the mystery -- and his new found love for Alice -- sparks his imagination. Alice, too, is an interesting character, as it looks like she finally gains friends for the first time in a long time, but I did kind of cringe as the end starting coming around, and she became a damsel in distress. Charles, our director, is OK, as he starts getting jealous that his leadership role is being usurped. And the other kids, well, they don't get much to do. One is nervous and always throws up, the other has an almost unnatural fascination with explosives and fireworks. They're pretty much one-note.
When all is said and done, Super 8 is pretty successful at being an homage to early Spielberg, but there's no substitute for Spielberg.