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Tuesday 20 February 2018

Film Review: Super 8 ****

12A, General Release

CHILD'S PLAY: The best scenes are
when the zombie film is being shot
CHILD'S PLAY: The best scenes are when the zombie film is being shot

Paul Whitington

No one who reviews JJ Abrams' Super 8 will be able to avoid using the word Spielberg. The great man is one of Super 8's producers but might almost have directed it, so closely does it adhere to the theme and spirit of his most iconic films. In ways, this is an earnest, witty Spielberg tribute from a star-struck admirer and fellow geek, that whisks the essence of Goonies, ET and Close Encounters into something clever and slick and visually compelling, but hardly new.

In other words, it's pastiche Spielberg, but you have to be a pretty good filmmaker to even attempt that, and JJ Abrams is definitely up to the job. Super 8 is set in a painstakingly recreated middle-American, late-70s town called Lillian, where a group of geeky teenage amateur filmmakers are spending a summer making their own zombie film.

Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) is the quintessential psychologically wounded Spielbergian protagonist: a quiet and rather soulful boy who's still coming to terms with his mother's death in a freak factory accident.

Largely left to his own devices by his lost and grieving father, a local sheriff, Joe spends most of his time in the company of his best friend Charles Kaznyk (Riley Griffiths), a film and monster-mad young fellow who has gotten a lend of his dad's Super 8 video camera with the aim of establishing himself as the next George A Romero. Charles has persuaded Joe and the rest of their friends to help him with his zombie film. Joe is the movie's make-up man, but when he finds out who the leading lady is he gets all in a fluster.

Joe has had a crush on Alice Dainard (Elle Fanning) for years, and relishes the chance to spend more time with her. But there's a problem: Joe's dad has blamed Alice's father Louis for his wife's death, because she was covering Louis's shift at the factory on the day that she was killed. Expressly forbidden to see her, Joe defies his father's instructions and sneaks out late one night to meet Charles, Alice and the rest of the crew and shoot a night-time scene at the train station.

As they're shooting, Joe notices a long train advancing on the station, while further down the tracks a pick-up truck drives slowly on to the tracks and stops there. As Joe watches in disbelief, the train piles into the truck and is spectacularly derailed: Charles keeps filming the resulting chaos, and the kids escape before the authorities arrive.

Next morning the US army arrives and seals off the town, and strange things begin to occur. First all the dogs start disappearing, then more and more people. Whatever was aboard that derailed train has changed the town of Lillian forever, and when Joe's dad goes missing too, he sets out to find him.

For at least its first hour, Super 8 superbly blends suspense, humour and the insatiable needs of its rapidly expanding plot. The late 70s is evoked with an almost absurd attention to detail, and the young actors -- particularly Fanning and Courtney -- do a fine job of anchoring Abrams' story. The best scenes involve the shooting of the zombie film, as Charles over-directs his actors and prattles on about "production values".

Super 8 proceeds with total conviction until it comes time to explain the source of all these strange goings-on: there's something unsatisfactory about the way Abrams resolves his mystery, and Super 8's ending is a bit too grandly derivative for my taste.

Abrams's cleverness is at this stage beyond question: what's less certain is his capacity for originality. Cloverfield was Godzilla cleverly refried; Star Trek a tired franchise skillfully rebooted; and this is a heartfelt tribute to Spielberg, the patron saint of precocious geeks.

That said, however, Super 8 is still probably the best blockbuster we'll see this summer, and for 100 minutes or so manages to pull off that special Spielberg trick of magically reconstituting the wonder of childhood and making it available to world-weary punters like me.

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