While the previous two films directed by JJ Abrams were contemporary updates to already established franchises (Mission: Impossible III, Star Trek), Super 8 is more of a general homage to the type of children’s adventure films that were popular in the late 1970s and early 1980s. While it doesn’t feel like an obviously calculated attempt to evoke such films, which will primarily be remembered by members of Generation X, Super 8 nevertheless generates a welcoming nostalgic glow. This is predominantly because Abrams has adopted many of the stylistic and narrative characteristics of the films produced and directed by Steven Spielberg, who is also one of the producers on Super 8. This doesn’t seem to have been done to merely pay tribute to Spielberg, but in recognition that his expert command of exposition, characterisation, mood and atmosphere is worth adopting.
Set in a small town in 1979, Super 8 is about a group of young kids who are making their own film; amusingly inspired more by directors such as George A Romero and John Carpenter rather than Spielberg. At first glance the scenario is similar to Garth Jennings’s Son of Rambow, about two boys in the 1980s remaking First Blood. However, while Jennings’s film mostly remained grounded in a sort of kitchen-sink realism, Abrams quickly introduces adventure, danger and mystery when the gang’s film shoot is interrupted by a train crash. Through the resulting post-crash suspense and wonderment, as the town falls prey to strange incidents and an unwanted military presence, Super 8 gradually builds to its big reveal.
Super 8 does contain several of the ideas that populate so many of Spielberg’s family orientated films – a likeable gang of kids as the heroes, child protagonists with single parents, adults as either untrustworthy or misunderstanding, and ordinary people encountering an extraordinary situation. There are also several nods to the left leaning science-fiction films of the 1950s when the source of the incidents is revealed after being incorrectly represented by the townspeople. For the most part Super 8 is a fun adventure, complete with some very sweet young love scenes and plenty of creepy moments where the element of the unknown is used to its full potential. During the final act of the film some of the magic is lost once the mystery of what is happening is revealed and the obvious reliance on CGIs becomes too dominant. All too suddenly the film snaps out of its old-fashioned keep-the-audience-guessing mode to something not nearly as satisfying.
Nevertheless, Super 8 is mostly tremendous fun and it certainly hits all of its emotional cues. Watching a likeable bunch of kids outwit the military is always a pleasure and the transformation of an average small town into an explosive war zone is a thrill. Going back to the style and structure of films such as E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Gremlins and The Goonies to create engaging narratives that rely on a developed build-up rather than a series of quick gratifications is an outstanding way of making engaging mainstream family entertainment. Hopefully Super 8 will trigger a new appreciation for such films and a new approach in contemporary filmmaking.