Super 8 has distilled the best elements of Spielberg’s films that centre on children (ET, The Goonies) and has been tempered on the modern anvil of JJ Abrams’ (Star Trek, Cloverfield) direction. The result is an unalloyed joy – exciting, captivating and moving; a film in which every relationship feels real, in which characters come alive on the screen and one that makes you nostalgic for every childhood summer day spent riding BMXs and having adventures.
Set in a small town in 1979, it follows 12 year old Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) as he struggles to cope with the recent death of his mother. Finding no help from his withdrawn father, the town’s Deputy (Kyle Chandler) he throws himself into making a zombie movie with his gang of friends including wannabe director Charles (Riley Griffiths) and pyromaniac Carey (Ryan Lee).
Sneaking out of their houses with the help of 14 year old Alice (Elle Fanning), they set up their shoot at an isolated train station. Things are going well until a car driven by one of their schoolteachers swerves onto the tracks and derails a freight train and series of mysterious events start happening all over town.
The young cast is the best since Rob Reiner’s classic Stand By Me. They have brilliant onscreen chemistry. They bicker, bitch and swear with a genuine fluidity which is incredibly rare; you believe they’re friends, not just kids acting in a movie.
It’s hard to single out specific praise in a cast this good but Elle Fanning is simply a revelation. She gives a mature and assured performance which at one point stuns her fellow gang members into complete silence. But it’s not just her screen contemporaries that will be impressed, as it’s easily one best child performances in recent years. Newcomer Joel Courtney is also fantastic as Joe – awkward and fragile but brave and adventurous. Ryan Lee also puts in a memorable performance as the group’s resident fire-obsessed member Carey (there’s one in every gang).
Their inquisitiveness feeds into our own curiosity which Abrams skilfully drip feeds. What are the mysterious white cubes left beside the wreckage? What was their biology teacher doing on the tracks? Why have all the dogs run out of town?
The adults are equally good if given less screen time, Chandler excels as Joe’s earnest dad, trying to hold it together for not just his son but the entire town and Ron Eldard is convincing as Alice’s emotionally damaged drunken father.
It’s not all bubblegum and BMXs. There’s a subtle darkness which threatens to overshadow any boyhood adventure – the absence of mothers leaves emotional scarring, something which provides a shared touchstone for the budding romance between Alice and Joe.
When the action does hit, it hits hard. Budding writer and director Charles lampshades the fact that the characters in his movie will be all the more compelling if they have backgrounds which cause us to care about them. If a 12 year old boy can understand a basic concept like that, why can’t many big budget Hollywood directors? The payoff is a train crash which is factors more impressive that anything that Michael Bay has coughed up in the last 10 years, a heart-in mouth spectacular full of the tortured screams of twisted metal and hunks of flying debris, one in which you’re genuinely scared for its participants.
It’s not without a few niggles. The climax comes all too quickly; our intrigue at the mystery which has held our attention gives way to a contrived resolution which magics away all plot inconsistencies. Consequently, the ending feels rushed and a little too neat and robs it of the emotional power punch which it so richly deserves.
Nevertheless, Super 8 is a film which feels like a previously unreleased Spielberg classic, one which treats childhood, with all its ups and downs, with great affection. The effects are great and the action superb, but this is merely the gilded frame which surrounds a clever, thoughtful and nostalgic film, an homage to a better class of film making.