Super 8Though J.J. Abrams has long been a darling of many looking for a possible successor to Spielberg at the top of the Hollywood brat-club, his directorial success has been almost exclusively limited to TV pilots. As his re-imagining of the “Star Trek” franchise proved however, he is an artist with considerable potential and how better to earn your spurs than with an homage to your childhood hero and the great director himself? Kept under wraps to heighten anticipation, the look and feel of “Super 8” is quick to betray Abrams’  inspirations: the film is firmly rooted in his childhood and the Spielberg, Lucas and Zemeckis films of the late 70s and early 80s. So specific is the zeitgeist of the era that it is easy to remark that “they simply don’t make movies like this anymore.” The setting is vital indeed but Abrams and Spielberg (acting as executive producer, giving us the first Amblin film in years) are on the best road to prove us wrong.

Making a zombie movie during the summer holidays on their super 8 camera, a group of tweens unwittingly become witness to a terrible train accident. It soon becomes clear that this was anything but a regular train as mysterious events begin to grip their town of Lillian: Army personnel roll in to gather evidence, dogs and then people disappear and power goes out again and again. What was contained in those freight carriages and what evidence might be contained on that reel of film that captured the immediate aftermath of the accident? The kids begin to hunt for the truth as the gripping tale begins to unfold. Abrams’ casting is key and with mostly unknowns it seems he’s hit the jackpot for every single role. The focus is on Joel Courtney’s Joe and his developing relationship with Alice (Elle Fanning), both struggling with difficult family situations and together they provide the heart of the film. Riley Griffiths, Ryan Lee, Gabriel Basso and Zack Mills make up the rest of the crew, adding a “Goonies” touch but providing much more than comic relief. Despite some typical Hollywood sensibilities, they are all entirely convincing throughout – their performances simply feel natural and we may well be watching the stars of the future (Elle Fanning is almost there already anyway). The adults, including Kyle Chandler who creates great dynamic with Courtney, rightly step into the background. Abrams wasn’t going to let anyone steal the kids’ show and their story is wholly involving.

The production design and keen cinematography (by Snyder regular Larry Fong) will immediately evoke nostalgia within those that grew up at that time but the film creates a great world for every viewer to feel into. Abrams’ direction is led by a sort of pure escapism that makes one yearn for those days of teenage freedom summer adventures despite the fact that onscreen events are anything but carefree. Indeed, many elements of “Super 8” far remove from kids-film territory, providing thrills, jumps and horror galore that will have you leaping out of your seat at several instances. And this is where eventually the film’s weaknesses do appear, namely when the plot requires the nameless terror to be revealed. At this point, Abrams can’t settle between homages to the likes of “E.T.” and “Close Encounters” or building up elements inspired by his production baby “Cloverfield.” Settling on all-out action sadly leaves the last 30 minutes devoid of the glorious filmmaking that defined the first 90 and robs the film of the highest possible rating. The film thus meanders into predictability and genre generics when it could really have been something outstanding. Thus the denouement is somewhat underwhelming and while this leaves a bit of a sour aftertaste as the credits finish up, nobody can complain of not having been entertained sufficiently in the initial two acts.

Super 8 OSTAfter his Oscar win for “Up” two years ago, Michael Giacchino’s output has been somewhat lessened and his effort for “Super 8” is a very welcome return to form for the composer. Significantly, this score provides him the opportunity to meld a beautiful, heart felt theme for the children with his very robust action style that he perfected for Abrams’s films. The child identity that plays mainly to Joe and Alice is heard at the outset of the album and is a very fitting and memorable theme. Sweeping strings are dominant in many passages and as always with Giacchino there’s a hint of John Williams though that of course is a nice play on the maestro’s scores for Spielberg. Secondary themes are explored in “Aftermath Class” and action explodes on the album’s latter half in tracks like “The Siege of Lillian” where significant inspiration from the Cloverfield Overture are to be heard. Even though some tracks are on the short side, there’s a generous amount of score on the album and makes for an excellent listen both beside the pictures and divorced from them. Both fans of the composer and casual collectors will find much to enjoy here.

Reminiscences to Spielberg’s own works mean the film carries the heavy burden of comparison to some real masterpieces one it can’t quite overcome. “Super 8” is very well worth seeing even though it ultimately falls short of the highest order. They really don’t make films like this anymore but J.J. Abrams is an honourable exception to that rule of thumb.

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