Super 8, the new film from JJ Abrams, is a visual feast and a great story too.
Director: JJ Abrams
Starring: Elle Fanning, Joel Courtney, Riley Griffiths and Ryan Lee
The late 1970s and early 1980s was a period of great (or at the very least great fun) movies involving children and aliens. ET was the high watermark of the genre and it's no coincidence that the Lost creator JJ Abrams, fresh from reigniting the Star Trek franchise, has called on Steven Spielberg to produce his new film. No doubt the ET and Close Encounters of the Third kind director agreed because he sees Abrams as an heir to his unofficial title as the king of family-friendly science fiction.
Super 8 contains elements of several of Spielberg's movies from this era, and is worthy of comparison to his 1982 classic.
The opening shot sees the numbers being removed from a sign at a steel mill which details the number of days since the last accident. At a wake, a group of boys, Joe (Courtney), Charles (Griffiths), Cary (Lee) and Preston (Zach Mills) discuss both the incident - which has killed Joe's mother - and also a film being shot by Charles, which he wants to enter in a young filmmakers competition at a local festival. The sequence ends with the arrival of a mystery figure at the house, Louis Dainard (Roy Eldard). We can hear action off-screen before Louis is frogmarched to a police station by Joe's father, deputy sheriff Jackson Lamb.
Four months later, in the summer of 1979, it's time for summer vacation in Lillian, Ohio. The boys are still making their zombie picture and the director Charles has been brave enough to invite Fanning to star in his picture. Fanning once again proves that she is the best child actress working in Hollywood right now, with a performance that's as good as anything from a young actor since Nathalie Portman was nominated for an Oscar for her turn in Leon.
The children's summer of filmmaking is changed forever when, while shooting a scene at a train station, they witness a car crash into a train and are told by their biology teacher Dr Woodward (Glynn Turman): "Do not speak of this or you and your parents will die."
Abrams, as he proved with Lost, is a master of tantalising the audience by withholding information so that we are never fully aware of what is going on. There are two mysteries running at the heart of Super 8: what were the US army carrying on the train and what exactly happened at the mill to make Louis and Jackson hate each other so much?
The answers are revealed within the zombie picture made by Charles and the monster movie being made by Abrams. The link between the two directors is enhanced as the young wannabe Orson Welles talks about what features are needed for a great movie and Abrams incorporates them into his bigger picture.
The friendship of the young group brings to mind another great 1980s classic, Stand By Me; indeed, perhaps the only criticism of Abrams' movie is that very occasionally he seems more concerned with paying homage to 1980s movies, and especially Spielberg, than the momentum of his own tale. It is, though, a minor complaint in a monster of a movie.