Film review: Super 8 (12A)

*** Directed by: JJ ABRAMS Starring: JOEL COURTNEY, KYLE CHANDER, ELLE FANNING, RILEY GRIFFITHS

Like a lot of Steven Spielberg's spiritual children, JJ Abrams spent his youth emulating his idol's precocious childhood making monster movies with his dad's Super 8 camera.

This would have been no big deal in itself, except for the fact that a twist of fate brought the young Abrams into direct contact with the ET director early in his nascent career. Entering a Super 8 film festival in Los Angeles in 1982, Abrams was featured in an LA Times article about the growing phenomenon of acne-ridden auteurs making backyard blockbusters, and Spielberg – who got a kick out of the "Beardless Wonders of Film Making" headline – proceeded to recruit Abrams to restore his own 8mm epics.

Abrams went on to find fortune and glory as the creator of Lost before kicking off his own successful film directing career by breathing new life into movies based on old TV shows (Mission: Impossible 3 and Star Trek). But the lovely, baton-passing nature of that early encounter stayed with him – so much so that it has now provided the inspiration for his third feature.

Set in 1979, Super 8 revolves around a group of kids in a small Ohio town who have a close encounter of the third kind while trying to complete a zombie movie for an upcoming film festival. This being the pre-digital age – where it takes three days minimum to get a strip of film developed – these tweens have to be a bit more resourceful in order to make movie magic happen. Which is why aspiring director Charles (Riley Griffiths) and his special effects maestro Joe (Joel Courtney) corral their fellow misfits into shooting next to a railway line after dark in an effort to get a little "production value".

When a car deliberately drives into the path of an oncoming train, however, they get a lot more production value than they bargained for. Aside from the crash almost wiping them out, the car's driver – one of their teachers – issues them with a stark warning to keep their mouths shut about what they've witnessed. It's advice they take to heart, especially when the military, rather than the emergency services, turn up. But when bizarre things start happening to their town in the ensuing days – dogs and people start disappearing, electrical equipment starts going missing – their combined curiosity and desire to finish their film gets the better of them.

All of which is really just smoke-and-mirrors until Abrams is ready to reveal his big secret, which alas, isn't much of a secret for anyone schooled in Spielberg's early work, or indeed, any sci-fi blockbuster influenced by it in the last 30 years. With Spielberg also serving as Super 8's producer, that's somewhat disappointing. Abrams' personal connection to the material should have transformed what is effectively his first "original" movie into the kind of ripped-from-the-heart strip of celluloid that no-one else could possibly have made.

Yet in slavishly paying tribute to his mentor's oeuvre, he's delivered the most authentic Spielberg film Spielberg never directed. That makes for a strangely stultifying viewing, especially since the 1980s were already dominated by films that bore Spielberg's stylistic tics, be they movies released under the "Steven Spielberg Presents" imprimatur (Poltergeist, The Goonies, *batteries not included) or born of the same influences (Joe Dante's lovely, but much more anarchic, Explorers).

Indeed, it's as if Abrams' own memories of childhood are so connected to watching these kinds of movies that they've supplanted any real experiences he might have had. The kids, for instance, have been uniformly conceived to fit the Spielberg archetype: they're all bright, sensitive dreamers, attuned to their own complicated family lives, yet open-minded enough to find awe in the world around them. But as good as the young cast are (Joel Courtney and Elle Fanning are the stand-outs), there's something a little mechanical about the way they hit their beats, as if they've studied the kids from ET without quite working out what made them seem so alive and genuine.

Which isn't to say Super 8 is a bad film. Abrams is great at staging gripping set-pieces and, in a summer dominated by sequels and relentlessly amped-up action extravaganzas, there is something charming about a nostalgic monster movie that places an emphasis on the importance of performance and story. But there's also something a little pious about this too, a sort of "they don't make them like this any more" finger wagging that begins to grate once it becomes clear that Abrams isn't able or willing to transcend his influences.

That's too bad. Richard Kelly's Donnie Darko, Matt Reeves's Let Me In and even some of M Night Shyamalan's early movies (The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable) showed what could be achieved when a director builds on Spielberg's pervasive influence to develop their own cinematic voice. Sadly, Abrams seems too in awe of his mentor to speak up for himself.

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