A throwback to golden era of family movies
1/2 Starring Joel Courtney, Kyle Chandler, Elle Fanning, Riley Griffiths, Ryan Lee, Zach Mills, Gabriel Basso. Written and directed by J J Abrams. 112 minutes, rated M (violence and fantasy horror), showing at Reading Cinemas Porirua. Even accepting the soft, sweet allowances of nostalgia, there was something very special about the family movies made in the late 1970s and early 1980s by Steven Spielberg and his ilk.
E.T., The Goonies, Gremlins, amongothers, not only epitomised wonderful cinema for the arse-end of generation X, they came to symbolise childhood.
Just as slasher prototype Halloween came to embody the wayward habits and hormones of teen culture, these imaginative sci-fi adventures, enhanced by eradefining special effects, removed the blinkers for eight-to-14 year-olds who had been reared on the small-screen saccharine of Lassie and The Wonderful World of Disney.
We realised Walt was wrong, it needn’t be ‘‘a small world after all’’, it could be a boundless expanse, and these pictures connected with kids in ways Star Wars and Indiana Jones simply couldn’t. Video games, BMX bikes, comic books and toys weren’t just props, they were powerful motifs in the hands of Spielberg, Richard Donnor and Joe Dante.
All of this is the mercurial magic J J Abrams has tried to conjure and calculate for his supernatural throwback, Super 8.
It’s 1979 in small town Ohio. Tweenage Joel (Joe Lamb) is busy helping his buds – bossy Charles (Riley Griffiths), fireworks freak Cary (Ryan Lee), squarepegs Preston (Zach Mills) and Martin (Gabriel Basso) – make a zombie movie, with dreams of winning a state-wide film contest.
When he isn’t applying fake blood and makeup to his friends or, even better, Alice (Elle Fanning), an older student who has agreed to join the project, Joel is struggling to kindle a relationship with his policeman father (Kyle Chandler), following the death of his mum.
Shooting at the train station one night, the kids witness a massive crash involving a military train and a pick-up truck. When some top secret cargo escapes the wreck, the sleepy town turns Twilight Zone. People, animals and electronics go missing, and the army has been called in.
The tone, narrative, young characters and score ensure Abrams’ nostalgic intentions are explicit, to the extent you can work your way through a Spielberg checklist as you watch the movie: Wideeyed kids – check. Well-meaning but oblivious adults – check. BMX riding at night – check. Curious alien gadgetry – check. Stone-eyed army men – check.
However, this assembly does not feel laboured or coldly calculated. The setting and characters are beautifully established, particularly the friendship of the boys, fuelled by peppy banter and enthusiasm, and the changing dynamic when Alice enters the frame (Fanning is the highlight among the likeable young cast).
As for the monster stuff, this doesn’t turn out as well. I expected a less pedestrian approach from the man who re- invigorated the Star Trek franchise. Abrams may have shot himself into a corner by his decision not to show the creature until the last act of the film, as every scene where it’s an out-of-thecorner-of-the-eye blur or a non-descript dark mass plays lame and irritating.
He didn’t need to build the picture around the creature’s mystery. He had some damn interesting young characters and relationships to draw our attention with, most of which get jettisoned in the third act when the focus turns to blowing stuff up. Yawn.
And when you do spend the better part of 90 minutes building up to a big reveal, you better be confident it’s going to melt our eyeballs. It doesn’t. Abrams’ creature looks like it was designed by committee, a hodge-podge assembly of random ideas.
Worse, in trying to make his monster one part Alien (adversarial terror) and one part E. T. ( sympathetic outcast), Abrams fails at both, so the big finale may be high on visual spectacle but it’s light on emotional connection – a key, if not the key, ingredient in those wonderful movies he is trying to replicate.