The following review is free from plot spoilers.
For years now, the summer release schedules have been dominated by wave upon wave of sequels to (and re-boots of) pre-existing franchises. A quick scan through the current cinema listings proves this year to be no exception. What with all the Hangovers, X-Men and Kung Fu Pandas already crowding our screens and more Transformers and wizards on their way, it becomes increasingly frustrating that even those films without a number affixed to the end of their title are cynically produced with an eye to earning one as quickly as possible, their narratives eschewing any sense of self-contained closure in favour of a more episodic resolution, a two hour first-act set-up for the inevitable continuation a couple of summers hence.
Director J.J. Abrams’ Super 8, whilst still numerically suffixed, offers a different prospect altogether. It’s not a prequel or re-boot of a known property, structuring itself as a singular entity not noticeably geared towards a sequel (although perhaps a future instalment could see its central filmmaking premise used deconstructively, as the escaped creature apathetically tours the celebrity circuit after destroying Rome in Super 8½). That’s not to say that this is an original picture by any means. In fact it’s intentionally, very specifically derivative. But when said derivation pays forensic homage to the one filmmaker who, at his peak, captivated an entire generation of cinema-goers, and demonstrates such an acute understanding of what made those films work on both a visual and emotional level, that’s not necessarily a negative association.
In both his role as creator of the television series’ Alias (2001-2006) and Lost (2004-2010), and as director of previous features Mission : Impossible III (2006) and Star Trek (2009), Abrams has displayed a strong flair for character-led storytelling, if little visual identity beyond a keen ability to orchestrate a dynamic set piece. But demonstrating a unique directorial personality is of little concern to him here, choosing to suppress any such glimmer of individuality in favour of the sublimation of every frame to the technical mastery of another filmmaker's style altogether. Super 8’s raison d’être is to nostalgically replicate on every level the spectacle and child's-eye-view sense of wonder previously utilised to phenomenal commercial success by Steven Spielberg in the late 70s and early 80s.
On a technical level, Super 8 brings to mind Gus Van Sant's shot-for-shot re-make of Hitchcock's Psycho (1998) in its studied appropriation of form and technique, forging its own progenitor's signature to an even greater degree than previous high profile, Spielberg-produced pictures. Whilst the likes of Tobe Hooper's Poltergeist (1982), Richard Donner's The Goonies (1985) and Joe Dante's Gremlins (1984) assimilated their producer's distinctive talents to a degree themselves and here serve as tonal touchstones, it's Spielberg's own E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) which stands as the key referential text, and Abrams proves himself a master counterfeiter.
Every effort has been made to ensure that Super 8 looks as well as feels like a film shot circa 1980, with Larry Fong's twinkling lens flares and shimmering cinematography bathed in a magic-hour haze at every opportunity. Costume and production design never miss a beat in detailed specificity, capturing a solid sense of early-80s verisimilitude more often than nostalgic reminiscence (although in tandem with Van Sant's Psycho, it appears a lingering fascination with the Walkman is an irresistible period-setting touchstone).
The conversations between director and producer out of which the project grew lend Super 8 an autobiographical element, one can see a young Spielberg in Charles, directing his pals in an 8mm zombie movie with dogged enthusiasm, and improvising around the army's occupation of their town to add 'production value', fully exploited during the extraordinary train crash near the start which sets the bigger story in motion. When we finally see Charles' finished short during the closing credits, it proves the highlight of Abrams' film, and is presumably not a far stretch from Spielberg's own home-made shorts Escape to Nowhere and Firelight, instructed by a love for genre cinema and sci-fi in the same way the kids here sport Romero references in their film and Halloween posters on their wall.
All Spielbergian tropes are present and correct, Joe and Alice's single parent homes are juxtaposed with the chaos of Charles', and adult figures are sidelined as an incomprehensible authority not up to the task at hand. This is a kids-own adventure in the best sense, a hymn to friendship and childhood that never condescends its characters. Abrams has certainly found young actors more than up to the challenge of fleshing out the sparkling dialogue and imbuing their roles with distinct wit and personality, the adult mindset is a different planet to them, something mirrored in the grown-ups' misunderstanding of the creature. Even if Spielberg's tendency towards overt sentiment is an inevitable by-product of such devoted homage, the investment in character as we reach the film's barnstorming climax is strong enough to excuse even the most heavy-handed instance, and may well apply pressure to even the most cynical heartstrings. Spectacle aside, with Super 8, Abrams has given his characters more than enough space to grow on screen, offering a wish fulfilment fantasy for today's kids and adults alike in much the same way that Spielberg did with E.T. almost 30 years ago, and in doing so has crafted one of the finest summer blockbusters in years.