With a solid slate of iconic television series and films already behind him, and two more pilots ready to launch in the next year, J.J. Abrams is apparently a man who rarely rests. Getting his start in the industry partly through editing old Super 8 reels for Steven Spielberg, Abrams became known in the industry for his solid writing on Taking Care of Business and Regarding Henry. Yet it is on television that Abrams truly began to show his skills as a master storyteller, creating and fostering the series LOST, Alias and Felicity, before translating two more television icons in the director’s chair on big-screen versions of Mission: Impossible 3 and Star Trek. Super 8 brings Abrams full circle and back to working with the legendary Spielberg.
In 1979, a group of teenagers in small-town Ohio are making a Super 8 mm film. After witnessing a spectacular train crash, the whole town begins to notice strange things happening. As they begin to investigate what is at the cause of these strange occurrences, they begins to uncover a truth more terrifying than they ever thought possible.
It’s very easy to lament the loss of the so-called ‘Golden Era’ of the blockbuster, a time when adventure and storytelling – and more importantly, fun – took precedence over special effects and 3D gimmickry. Perhaps such a time never really existed, but what is so disarmingly charming about Super 8 is that is manages to not only convince us that it did, but transport us completely to that place that had previously only been in our memories. The period detail may seem wholly familiar to those that lived through the era, but also anybody that has re-watched Close Encounters of the Third Kind or E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial recently. Yet don’t mistake this for mere a Spielberg tribute or Abrams flattering the producer. While the Spielberg touches are all there – from the chaos of the family home, the broken single-parent family (there’s two this time!), and the world as seen through the eyes of children – this is a love-letter to an era of filmmaking indelibly tied to Abrams’ own formative years. Unlike recent efforts such as the underrated Paul, Super 8 doesn’t hit you over the head with its cinematic references and extensive film knowledge, but rather weaves them into the whole to create something nostalgic yet completely original as well.
The cast of young actors is phenomenal. Abrams commented in a recent interview with us that Spielberg offered a lot of advice on working with the young cast, but they are incredibly talented in their own right. Elle Fanning demonstrated a maturity beyond her years in Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere, and while she is leaps and bounds ahead of other actors her age (and some twice that), the cast of relative newcomers keeps pace. The real find is Joel Courtney in what is essentially the lead child role, although it is effectively an ensemble piece, with the cinematic blank slate delivering a genuine and heartfelt performance. Indeed, this is true of all of the cast, especially enthusiastic newcomer Riley Griffiths, and we wouldn’t be surprised if Super 8, like the analogous Stand By Me or The Goonies before it, launches the careers of tomorrow’s Josh Brolin, Jerry O’Connell, Wil Wheaton, Sean Astin or River Phoenix. Actually, scratch that last one. What these child stars bring is something that is painfully absent from many recent blockbusters and that’s heart. Keeping the secrets of the train’s inhabitant under wraps for most of the film gives us an incredibly tense adventure ride, but it is the coming together of all those other elements that delivers a piece of cinematic perfection we are unlikely to see again in the near future.
Super 8 is released on 9 June 2011 in Australia from Paramount.