It's June '79 in a small Ohio town. School's out and the summer holiday stretches ahead. A group of young filmmakers are working hard on completing their magnum opus - an ambitious zombie movie, shot on the eponymous super 8mm. Whilst doing a late night shoot, they - and crucially, their camera - witness a catastrophic train wreck. Soon the area is swarming with military types, packing the latest in hi-tech hardware and assuring the locals that, hey - everything's fine, it's just a standard clean-up operation. Hardly standard - something very important to the military was on that train and it's gone missing. That something is an alien, discovered in a crashed spaceship, and now free to prowl the nighttime streets of the town, frantically searching for the components it needs to rebuild his ship.
SUPER 8 starts promisingly. The young cast are great (particularly Joel Courtney and Elle Fanning) and their clunky attempts at making a homebrew horror epic are comically, yet affectionately portrayed. SUPER 8 is in 2D (hurrah!), plus it's one of those rare animals this summer - a movie that isn't a sequel or a gross-out comedy or a superhero adventure.
It's just a shame that after an entertaining first half hour, things start to go off the rails around the time the train does. The dual storylines that follow - "coming of age in smalltown America" and "alien nasty on the loose" - don't sit easily with each other. The teenagers' storyline would have made a great film by itself and really didn't need the crowbarred introduction of an evil ET into the mix.
Talking of ETs, writer/director J J Abrams works hard at crafting SUPER 8 as a cinematic valentine to Steven Spielberg (who also acts as executive producer on the flick). All those Spielberg trademarks - smalltown milieu to dollying camera to extreme backlighting - are present and correct. The trap that Abrams falls into, however, is the same one descended into by Bryan Singer with SUPERMAN RETURNS. Abrams rapidly moves beyond SUPER 8 being just a homage to Steve, with scenes not lightly referencing but virtually restaging those by The Bearded One. It's cinematic karaoke - superficially enjoyable, yes, but ultimately unsatisfying. With MISSION IMPOSSIBLE 3 and STAR TREK, Abrams proved that he could identify the key elements from a previous work and produce something unique from them. Not so here. Abrams appears to be too close to the original material, too enamoured with the Spielberg back catalogue to create anything different from it.
(As a separate point, the placing of the film in the summer of 1979 is an interesting choice. At that time, Spielberg was riding high off his back-to-back blockbusters JAWS and CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, plus there was the critical acclaim awarded to DUEL and SUGARLAND EXPRESS. His next film - 1941, released later in '79 - was torn apart by the critics and flopped at the box-office. The golden boy was considered not to be as infalliable as previously thought. Of course, he rose to new heights of acclaim and box-office success later.)
Anyway, let me be clear on one thing - SUPER 8 may be heavily flawed but it's still a cut above recent cinematic blockbusters like PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN 4 or TRANSFORMERS 3. Although the characters are not as developed as they should have been, you do find yourself caring about what will happen to them. The climax - which regrettably goes down the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS/ET route, when it should have done a JAWS - does at least have a very effective and emotional kick at one point, which whilst not completely salvaging the ending, does go a little way towards redeeming it.
A final point - be patient and wait a minute into the end credits. There's a bonus sequence that's well worth staying around for.
SUPER 8 has a 12A certificate and opens across the UK this Friday.