It may seem like J.J Abrams shot to fame from nowhere, but his rise has been years in the making. Most probably heard of his name with the 2004 mind bending TV series Lost, but Mr Abrams had been involved with movies long before that. In 1998, he wrote the screenplay for tear jerking drama Armageddon and also penned the script for horror/thriller Road Kill. Whilst that wasn’t financially successful, it has become somewhat of a cult classic, and I’d highly recommend it. But it was in 2008 when he became a household name with producing duties on hand held footage monster flick Cloverfield. The viral marketing techniques employed for the movie were nothing short of incredible; the majority of it hardly even focused on the movie itself but on fictional products and events that happen within the universe that the film was set in. Jump forward to 2011, and he’s one of the hottest properties in Hollywood, after successfully bringing classic TV series Star Trek to the big screen for a whole new generation (there’s some pun intended in there somewhere!). Teaming with the legendary director Steven Spielberg, Abrams takes another stab at the monster movie but this time through the eyes (and lens) of a group of friends living in 70’s Ohio.
Whilst filming for a local film festival, a group of friends witness a catastrophic train crash. The cargo of which is unknown, but the collision results in it spilling out into the surrounding area. When mysterious occurrences begin in their home town, Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney), Charles (Riley Griffiths), Cary (Ryan Lee) Preston (Zach Mills), Martin (Gabriel Basso) and Alice (Elle Fanning, sister of Dakota)set out to uncover what really was contained within the train, whilst coming to terms with emotions for each other, dealing with difficult parents and generally going through the ups and downs of growing up.
Just like Cloverfield, Super 8‘s marketing was, for the main part, viral. Whilst no where near as aggressive as its older cousin, more buzz has been generated for it due to the unusual methods for advertising; for example, at the start of the year, a website appeared depicting a product called Rocket Poppeteers which weren’t a direct reference to any part of the film, but was discovered after printing out a file from another viral site, scariestthingieversaw.com. There’s a load more like this, and luckily it’s all in one place at super8.wikibruce.com. This isn’t to say that conventional methods weren’t used: the posters and trailers teased the movie to be a throwback to 80’s Sci-Fi pictures. Sadly, this isn’t the case and the whole thing appears to be more of a homage to producer Steven Spielberg and movies he directed or produced from years gone by. Although this isn’t entirely a negative point, its lack of originality is ultimately its downfall.
If you’ve seen the trailers, you’ll know the cast is largely made up of teenagers all of whom are unknown apart from Fanning. They all showcase potential, especially for their age, but the chemistry between them all as friends isn’t particularly strong. What also bothered me was the unnecessary use of strong language and profanities: it worked in the superior ‘coming-of-age’ movie Stand By Me, but for reasons unknown it doesn’t quite cut it here and seems forced, especially when the ‘F Bomb’ is dropped. Maybe it’s due to never knowing each character much individually; after the initial introductions, the focus goes to Joe and Ellie, with Charles coming second but providing the most comedy. The others (Cary, Preston and Martin) aren’t developed in any way, and it’s for this reason I believe it doesn’t fully succeed as a movie about friendship, but neither is it convincing as a monster movie either.
With Cloverfield, and I apologise for the comparison once again, the air of mystery surrounding the creature is achieved through the use of hand held camera. Here, using typical film cameras, it’s intriguing for a while but quickly becomes tedious in attempts to conceal its identity. Also, the longer we don’t see ‘it’, the risk of disappointment increases. And whaddayaknow: once we eventually see the beast in full, it’s like de-ja vu. If Abrams is planning another monster movie, he really should go back to the drawing board with creature design. And whilst there are some clever shots here and there, the overuse of lens flare effect becomes laughable. Even in dark scenes, it’ll flash across the screen, distracting you from events happening in the picture. So then, why doesn’t it fully work as a monster movie? I’ll go back to what I previously said about it being heavily Spielberg-esque: think of E.T. and you’re halfway there. The threat seems very ‘contained’ too, and only the town seems to be jeopardised. That said, the creature does provide some effective scares for the film’s age certificate, utilizing an approach of unexpected startles to catch the audience off guard.
What is most impressive, and arguably most memorable, about Super 8, is its musical score. At times, it does sound like sections were ‘borrowed’ from E.T, but it manages to create an identity of its own. If there’s even the smallest possibility that a sequence could be ‘nostalgic’, the soaring elevates it to heights that even Elliot would be proud of.
A victim of it’s own hype (and Abrams reputation), Super 8 never really lives up to expectations. The narrative constantly shifts from monster movie to friendship story/forbidden romance and this causes the impact of both on the audience to suffer as a result. Still, it’s highly enjoyable as a summer blockbuster, even though it attempts in vain to be something it’s not. Be sure to stay for the finished product of the groups project, which is hilarious and contains a pivotal reference to its subject matter.