During the summer of 79, Joe (Joel Courtenay) and his young-teen mates are shooting a home-made zombie movie on a Super 8 camera. Persuading Alice (Elle Fanning) to play a key role sparks both hormones and horrors. During a clandestine midnight shoot, the group witness a train crash. Great for their film but bad for their town. Out of the wreckage comes a creepy-crawly monster. With the military acting suspicious and friends disappearing, the gang must man up if they’re to save the day.
JJ Abrams, best known for his Star Trek reboot, Mi:3 and the TV series Alias, pulls off a terrific adventure movie with real heart. Cranking up the crisis and enveloping his cast in genuine peril, it’s the kind of film ‘they don’t make any more’. Best of all is the interplay between Joe and Alice, both damaged following the death of Joe’s mum when Alice’s Dad missed a shift - and an accident - at a local factory.
Joel Courtenay does sterling work as Joe. And untypically for contemporary films, adult or kids’, he’s a refreshing hero. Decisive, unblubbing and resourceful he’s a flesh and blood kid with a mind of his own. And Elle Fanning plays Alice with a wounded humour and grace, raising her relationship with Joe way above cliché to something much more engaging.
Abrams gives his traditional shaky-cam a miss and revels in the back-to-basics film-making of his 70s set movie. Like Spielberg, Abrams was a nerdy teen who resorted to making homespun movies, in his case on a Super 8 camera. Smoothly shot and imbued with the colours and textures of the 70s, Super 8 is immediately rooted and reflective of Abrams’ upbringing and the films he watched at the time, notably Spielberg’s.
Populating the cast with relative unknowns works a treat, adding to the unpredictability of the story. And the film within a film, the zombie movie, is both funny, ghoulish and believably teen-made. Like Spielberg , Abrams chooses to hint at the monster from sounds, shaking bushes and rear-view mirrors before unleashing the beast fully on the screen in all its tentacular glory.
Special effects are hit and miss. The train crash is explosive enough but the CGI shows through too much. Not so the monster, which is artfully done. Abrams shares Spielberg’s recurrent theme that it’s man who’s the greatest monster. And that it’s family that matters the most.
People get squished, snatched and cocooned. But Super 8 hints at it rather than showing the demise. Unlike the zombie movie within the film which lets itself go with shootings and blood gurglings, a homage to zombie maestro George Romero, cheekily inked-in as the zombie plot baddies, ‘Romero Chemicals’.
Super 8 is a movie about movies. Thankfully, though, it works on its own terms too, refreshing and thoroughly engaging. Once ELO’s Don’t Bring Me Down belts out on the soundtrack, you know you’re in for some serious nostalgia and a tremendous amount of fun.