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Rating: 4 stars out of 5
I admit to having been frustrated by Lost, the TV series by JJ Abrams that firmly established his name. The series started off with a great first season but the subsequent seasons were increasingly convoluted, creating mystery for its own sake, while becoming ever more reliant on the paranormal and even time travel with each episode. I was flabbergasted by the last season, where very little was tied up, with a whole bunch of plot threads left unresolved.
Well Abrams appears to be working more with cinema these days, which probably would be a better fit for him. He’s been teasing us with the trailer from his new movie Super 8, which arrives in theaters this week.
Abrams loves to talk about a mystery box where you hide the contents within from the audience. For Lost, when he did finally show the insides of the box, the result was less than stunning. Here, the creature at the centre of the feature, is also more typical than atypical, somewhere in between ET and the Abrams produced Cloverfield in terms of size and menace, and it’s hard not to be underwhelmed by it.
Thankfully, Abrams does good in other areas. There's no denying his skill, though it's quite obvious he's comfortable here standing in the shadow of Steven Spielberg, and much of the film pays homage to the films of the 80s as well as Spielberg’s classics. Most of all, it’s about Abrams personal journey; he started out shooting Super 8 films before finding success in TV and movies, which are the bits where the film finds its own voice.
Set during the late 70s in the fictional town of Lillian, the film starts off at a funeral for the mom of Joe (Joel Courtney). Fast forward to the summer, and Joe's future would-be Ed Wood friend Charles (Riley Griffiths) is trying to make a zombie film for a contest. He's enlisted a bunch of high school rejects and geeks, including the pyromaniac Cary (Ryan Lee) and the angelic but wounded soul Alice (Elle Fanning).
While shooting at a train station one night, they witness a train derailment. They manage to get away just before being apprehended by the military, but soon after that, the good townsfolk of Lillian start disappearing, as well as machine parts.
The premise, a bunch of boys going up against an unknown evil, is reminiscent of The Goonies, which Richard Donner directed and Spielberg produced. Just like in that film, the young cast are the best thing about Super 8. Abrams builds up the chemistry between them, and there’s a genuine, mad passion for filmmaking that Charles’ imbibes in them. (Stay to the end credits to see their creation.)
There are also moments of filmmaking where Abrams lets the visuals speak for themselves. From the simple opening scene to the almost-sappy closing moments, Abrams composes some breathtaking shots.
It’s a pity Abrams didn’t allow the kids more space to play. In the final few minutes, Abrams lets the FX be the star, and the film feels like it’s been seized by otherworldly forces. The finale is a run of the mill special effects showcase, and the homage to Spielberg almost becomes a ripoff.
The young cast that Abrams has picked are brilliant in their roles, particularly lead Courtney, who’s trying to heal the gap left behind by his mom’s death. Elle Fanning, who also appeared in the Sofia Coppola award-winner Somewhere, stands out as the damsel in distress/love interest.
It’s a pity that, like for Lost, Super 8 can’t maintain its momentum. It’s still a superlative film, and an outstanding film about a bunch of boys (and one girl) taking on incredible odds. With Super 8, Abrams has created a great home to low-tech filmmaking and to Spielberg that is almost out of this world.