The truth is out there... Elle Fanning and Joel Courtney star in Super 8 (2011)
Super 8 is J.J. Abrams homage to childhood, first love, DIY zombie movies and Steven Spielberg, who mentored the young director and executive produced this much anticipated sci-fi drama. It's 1979 (post Jaws, 1975, Star Wars, 1977, and Dawn Of The Dead, 1978), and Joe Lamb's (Joel Courtney) mother has just died. We never see her, but the toll of her loss is felt. Joe's father, Jackson (Kyle Chandler), is the Deputy Sheriff, and not used to being a father - he's a good man, but perhaps too dedicated to his work. Joe is currently in the middle of shooting a zombie movie with his chubby friend Charles (Riley Griffiths), a movie obsessive who is constantly re-writing scenes and adapting to his environment - he's got books and magazines scattered about the house, and these have informed him of production values. One night they sneak out to the train tracks to shoot a scene with Alice (Elle Fanning), who Joe is secretly - but quite obviously - in love with. There's a quietly affecting moment where he applies her makeup, and Abrams allows their faces to speak a thousand awkward words. The performances here are tremendous, and the screenplay has real heart.
The plot kicks into gear when a speeding train is derailed by a car driving on the tracks, which leads to an extravagant (and incredibly loud) set-piece where the kids dodge carriages, pipes and shrapnel, propelled through the air by a mass fuel explosion (I doubt this is in any way realistic, but it looks cool). Charles accidentally captures all of this on film. In fact, he doesn't know it yet, but he's captured quite a bit more - namely the contents of the train, which manages to escape into the dark of night. I won't spoil exactly what that contents is, but if you haven't figured it out from the trailer then I'd suggest you divulge in a lobotomy rather than a trip to the cinema. Abrams slowly teases us glimpses of the *ahem* contents as it wreaks havoc all over town, and this is part of what makes the first hour so much fun. What we do know is that it's very big and very fast, and it manages to decimate an entire gas station in seconds. So why it was being carried on a train in the first place I don't quite know, but hey, it's a popcorn movie, so we'll let it slide. The whizzing pyrotechnics really don't get much of a look-in for the first half anyway, which basically plays like Stand By Me (Reiner, 1986) with... well, you know what.
The biggest problem with Super 8 is its second half, which indulges in perfunctory blockbuster mechanics like the worst of these pictures end up doing. For the first hour Abrams' film actually ranks amongst the best of the year - it's not only a nostalgic experience, recalling the golden age of Spielberg, but it also has important things to say about friendship; it is sensitive and soulful, helped in no large part by some truly exceptional performances. The young cast are all great, and it'd be unfair to single any one of them out, but it's worth mentioning how accomplished Elle Fanning has become, and how she now exists outside of her sister's shadow. She's a far more interesting actress, and seemingly capable of much greater depth - she's so natural here, as she was in Somewhere (Coppola, 2010), and I can't wait to see what she does next. No matter the quality of the film, I'm sure she'll be excellent.
So, the film is chugging along nicely, and all of the action scenes are well handled (there's perhaps too much lens flare, which Abrams has an annoying penchant for, but it doesn't distract too much). In fact, I'd go so far as to say the first hour is perfect - it has mystery, suspense, humour and heart. But then that second half arrives, and it all falls apart. The film inevitably becomes an all-out action picture, and the closest comparison I'd draw would be with Spielberg's War Of The Worlds (2005). Do you remember the first set-piece of that film, where the pods chased Tom Cruise through his little suburban town (oh, and how funny, he's a single father), while the laser beams zipped through houses, exploding them into splintering shards? Yeah, well it's a lot like that, and at the expense of all the character-driven charm which has come before. The army invade and soon suburbia has gone to hell, with explosions going off left, right and center. The film loses focus; character motivations are forgotten, loyalties realigned, personalities changed. At one point Jackson - a strict lawman who respects authority - is taken captive by the army, but stages a breakout where he bluntly attacks a solider and blows up an oil truck. The violence is quite intensified, and his actions wreckless. I suddenly didn't recognize the character.
This last paragraph has to contain full-on spoilers, so if you haven't seen the film, I'd stop reading now. When Joe undertakes his mission to save Alice he finally comes up against the alien - a mixture of the creature from Cloverfield (Reeves, 2008) and a rather large, grubby bug. What occurs here is a moment of gross sentiment, as the boy reasons with the alien, channeling his grief into a rational argument for his towns survival. The creature, in close-up, registers nothing for the viewer. In the midst of plot contrivances and special effects he has lost all sense of menace - we no longer fear him, and given the sharp U-turn in tone we don't sympathize with him either. Ian Nathan, of EMPIRE, said it best. He's "a visitor from planet MacGuffin." Where, I'm left wondering, did the characters go? Those wonderful kids who I had become so attached to over the last hour, who were relatable and honest and strong. Why, now, am I left picking out plot holes and inconsistencies? The final three minutes are blindingly incompetent, and certainly don't feel like the conclusion to everything which has come before. The first half of Super 8 is brilliant. I just don't know what happened. Well, actually I do, but it's a bit cynical. Simply put: Spielberg happened.