Steven Spielberg is a Hollywood legend. This is the premise of Super 8, a new mystery, science-fiction thriller from writer-director J.J. Abrams that functions as a tribute to Spielberg, who's signed on as producer. In case you haven't heard of Jeffrey Jacob Abrams, he's the guy that brought us Mission: Impossible III and the new Star Trek. Hell, he even wrote Armageddon... making him a pretty big deal around Hollywood... just not as big as Spielberg!
High-tech, action-packed entertainment is a trademark of both directors and something that Abrams has latched onto - citing the first three Star Wars movies as a big influence over his generation and career. It's no wonder he and Spielberg have teamed up. High-tech usually means alien these days and Spielberg is so obsessed with spacemen that he decided to resurrect Indiana Jones (and Harrison Ford), just to go alien on us again.
Being one of the most influential film-makers of all-time helps from time-to-time. He's not dead yet, but why wait for Spielberg to be beamed up by the mother ship, when you can show your appreciation for him here on earth. This is the sentiment of Super 8, which could have just as easily been made by Steven "E.T." Spielberg himself. He's proved his worth with a film career spanning four decades with no less than 3 of those "golden boys" on his mantlepiece.
Super 8 follows the intrepid adventure of Joe Lamb and a group of teen film-makers, who witness a train wreck near their small American town. Their small zombie movie's production value goes from small scale to big budget as the air force are summoned to secure the perimeter, the local police department get outranked and the government attempts to cover-up traces of the creepy phenomenon...
Sounds like your typical science-fiction set-up. The big difference is that its taken from the perspective of a young teenager growing up in 1979 suburbia. The Smashing Pumpkins wrote a song about the year... and a decade after the first moon landing, you'd expect people to start wondering just how much "life" really is out there. You'd expect more name actors in a blockbuster like Super 8, but its got a Close Encounters of the Third Kind ensemble... opting for lesser known actors for more realism.
You may recognise TV actor, Kyle Chandler from Early Edition and Friday Night Lights, or Elle Fanning from Somewhere and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Chandler takes on a similar everyman role to Richard Dreyfuss in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, while you could say Elle Fanning's supporting role is akin to Drew Barrymore in E.T. You could say this is a star-making vehicle with Joel Courtney delivering an excellent debut performance as Joe Lamb.
Super 8 is basically a homage to Spielberg. Imagine throwing all of his best movies into a blender and marketing the "juice" as Super 8. That's exactly what's happening here... with the major collision of influences from two of Spielberg's earliest triumphs: E.T. - The Extra Terrestrial and Jaws. It's like J.J. Abrams is playing a large scale version of Twister with Spielberg controlling the spinner directing him to each of his blockbusters.
The result is superb and the special effects are magical, relying on its two major influences as well as The Goonies, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and War of the Worlds. Another driving force is the love of film-making, which inspired the title Super 8. The entertainment value is out-of-this-world, something synonymous with just about any Spielberg film. The passion behind the young film-makers is what compels them and lands them in the middle of the mystery.
Nostalgia and childhood innocence propel Super 8's action-adventure. The sets and costumes allude to the age without distracting the audience and you hardly even notice the lack of cellphones or gaming consoles. Instead, an emphasis is placed on actually getting out there and being creative. Seeing the world from a teenager's eyes, doubles the payback and Abrams counterbalances the thrills with light comedy and teen romance.
The Spielberg factor is that even with the complex blend of genres, there's still focus... progressing from small town drama to mystery-thriller and finally epic action-adventure without losing the plot. This keeps the audience engaged as each swirling subplot builds the movie to a climax, giving us a chance to let the emotion catch up with us for a heartfelt ending. The ride is thoroughly enjoyable, executed as if by Spielberg himself, and delivers on performance, direction, story, special effects and writing.
In fact, it's so quintessentially Spielberg that you get that "haven't we seen this before" feeling, which is probably the only real criticism of Super 8. The E.T. and Jaws cross-over works well enough to give the movie a fresh and satisfactory feeling, but it's a bit like meeting a clone. The film looks, talks and walks like the real deal, but there's a synthetic, soul-less undercurrent. All-in-all, Super 8 is a first-rate product... but you can't beat the real thing.
The bottom line: Compelling.