Saturday, 2 July 2011

Super 8 review (contains spoilers)

I went to see a new film called Super 8 last weekend. The film doesn't hit UK cinemas until next month, but it came out here on June 24th. I'd read a bit about the film in a magazine, and the article compared it to E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. In fact, Super 8 was directed by JJ Abrams as something of a tribute to old Spielberg movies, and featured Steven Spielberg himself as the producer. It was also getting a lot of great reviews, so with some free time on Sunday afternoon we went to see it at the local cinema.

Although not immediately obvious, Super 8 is set in 1979. I say this as some of the language, fashions and sets seem to have a slight contemporary twist, but for the most part the aesthetics are fairly accurate, and had Super 8 been made using the grainy film technologies of 1979 I'm sure it would have looked authentically retro. The soundtrack is also great, full of solid hits from the late 70s.

The plot and storytelling techniques used here also feel somewhat vintage. Minus the slick, explosive action scenes, the story is fairly slow-paced and feels like it unfolds naturally. This relaxed method of storytelling is quite rare in more modern cinema, and Super 8's use of it is definitely a unique selling point.

The film tells how a group of boys and one girl get involved in a supernatural mystery after witnessing a huge train crash while out filming a homemade movie with their Super 8 camera. As well as E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Super 8 also owes a debt to films such as The Goonies and Stand By Me – films that featured a gang of kids bonding over an out-of-the-ordinary adventure. But it is definitely E.T. which seems to have exerted the most influence over JJ Abrams here. The similarities between E.T. and Super 8 are endless:
  • A plot involving a group of BMX-riding children who come into contact with an extraterrestrial life form in suburban America
  • Protagonist comes from a one-parent family
  • Extremely similar score
  • Late 70s/early 80s setting
  • A government body attempting to capture the alien
  • Only the children understand the alien, until their older siblings, then their parents become involved
  • The alien eventually returning to his home planet in a spaceship at night
  • Underage children driving cars
  • Funny banter between the kids
  • Star Wars references
  • Many instances of product placement
  • The alien taking machine parts to construct his own devices
The gang's filmmaking hobby is probably also an homage to Spielberg's boyhood pastime.

For me, Super 8 is a contemporary, darker version of E.T. as it takes the more sinister elements of E.T. and cranks them up a few notches. For example, while there is one shock scene in E.T. where E.T. jumps out of the grass and scares Elliott, there are a lot more of these in Super 8. And the alien in Super 8 is posing quite a threat to the people of the town, whereas E.T. was generally harmless to humans.

The only thing that was disappointing about Super 8 was the ending. After an epic set-up during the first half of the film, Super 8 seemed to lose some steam as it neared its climax. While the finish to E.T. is extremely involving, Super 8 felt a bit predictable and rushed towards the end. For example, Joe meeting, bonding with and convincing the alien to go home all within a couple of minutes felt forced and rushed. I think a better ending would have gone like this: The alien chases the kids through his lair until Joe sacrifices himself to distract the alien, leading to Alice and Cary escaping. The alien is hostile to Joe until they experience some King Kong-style moments of understanding and bonding. Meanwhile, Alice and Cary have told the adults where Joe is and they all form a search party to go and retrieve Joe. The military accompany them, but their mission is to capture and neutralise the alien, pitting them against the more benevolent concerns of the search party. When Joe is found he explains that the alien is misunderstood and the search party help him escape back to his home planet while the military still try to capture him.

Something like the above is skating even closer to the E.T. storyline, but it would be much better-paced and would have established a stronger connection between the alien and the residents of the town. Actual contact and understanding between the alien and the humans was minimal, and this is one of the reasons that E.T. was such a hit.

If Super 8 had an improved ending, it could have honestly been a classic, but as it is, I think it falls slightly short. Still, the slow-building mystery and suspense created in the first half of the film are something lacking in contemporary cinema, and make Super 8 a must-see; all the more so if you're a fan of Spielberg's early boy-comes-of-age films.

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