So I finally saw my most eagerly anticipated movie of the year and it just about met my expectations. Ever since I saw the final trailer I've been hoping Super 8 would mark a return to the late seventies/early eighties Spielbergian magic that has been almost completely absent from recent Hollywood movies. While this Cloverfield/E.T. mashup doesn't always work, it captures enough of that old school charm to warm the heart of any child of the 80's.
After a slow opening that gives us time to get to know the characters we get the first action scene - an impressive train crash that rivals the one in the Fugitive. From there on the film teases the audience with glimpses of the "monster", disappearances of townsfolk and a sinister military coverup. As interesting as the mystery is, it's the human relationships that are the heart of the film. The child actors all do a great job of portraying real, likeable kids - the kind that rode their bikes through the movies of my youth.
Joel Courtney is especially good as the wide-eyed protagonist - amazing to think that it's his first film. I did find Elle Fanning a little cold and aloof as his romantic interest, but maybe that was more the fault of the writing rather than her performance. The adult cast is peppered with recognisable but not famous actors (including Dan Castellaneta in an amusing cameo) that lend further credibility to the story.
While some may find the shift from straight monster movie to sentimental alien fantasy a little jarring (Spielberg would have probably made the transition less clumsy if he had directed it at his height), it allows for an emotional ending with a strong message about letting go. The alien, when it is finally revealed, may not be as visually groundbreaking as people were hoping, but the characters' journey is more important than the ending. Abrams is good at orchestrating the scares early on, though. The carnage the kids walk through is impressive, though as with many of Spielberg's films it strains believability that the characters could all escape relatively unscathed.
The film perfectly captures a bygone period of Americana, when children (in movies at least) still had a childlike sense of wonder. It's also a love letter to filmmaking itself, with the zombie movie within a movie being both amusing and heartfelt (be sure to stay for the credits and see the completed movie). Michael Giacchino's score is fine, though it does make one wish the film had an actual John Williams score.
I've no idea how this film will play with today's kids (the strong language may turn off their parents though) but anyone who grew up on Jaws, Close Encounters, Stand By Me, E.T. and The Goonies will find it impossible not to find something to enjoy. They may not make 'em like this anymore, but even if this only captures 10% of that old school Spielberg magic, that still makes it better than 90% of the blockbusters Hollywood feeds us these days.
Oh, and be sure to stay for the end credits.