The links between the two films are notable: both feature gangs of pop-culture-savvy teens who come up against an intergalactic menace and both pay direct homage to the post-‘Star Wars’, pre-CGI golden age of kid-friendly genre cinema. But where Joe Cornish’s Brixton-set barnstormer used these influences as a springboard for a pacy, socially conscious comedy-horror, Abrams’s small-town sci-fi fantasy seems hamstrung by its director’s desire to pay glowing tribute to his cinematic heroes.
‘Super 8’ opens strongly, as a gang of youths led by recently bereaved SFX nut Joe (Joel Courtney) and bullish wannabe director Charles (Riley Griffiths) set out to make a DIY zombie movie for a local film festival and accidentally photograph a devastating train crash. It’s not long before the army shows up, people begin to disappear and Joe and his friends are caught in the middle of a military cover-up.
There’s plenty to recommend here: the train crash sequence is stunning, a thunderous and nail-biting display of special effects wizardry and directorial flair. The young actors are great too, notably an icily imposing performance from Elle Fanning as the troubled object of Joe’s romantic desires. Abrams’s script sparkles in a handful of overlapping, Spielbergian suburban dialogue scenes and it’s sprinkled with choice one-liners.
But as the plot contrivances pile up, Abrams finds it impossible to maintain either the quality or the tension. The humour descends from snappy, believable banter to broad ‘Goonies’-style slapstick – kids shrieking and falling over – while the emotional scenes plummet from the wonderfully terse, tight-lipped tragedy of the prologue to pure, manipulative schmaltz. Worst of all, the alien subplot is tiresome and derivative, leading to a laughable sub-‘ET’ finale.
It seems churlish to deride as unoriginal a film intended so clearly as homage, but the likes of ‘Attack the Block’ prove you can be both familiar and fresh. ‘Super 8’ doesn’t even try, content to let our nostalgic memories of better movies fill in the blank spaces in the script. The result is a diverting but rather pointless affair, undermined by its obsessive and clinical commitment to recreating past glories. Bring on ‘Attack the Block 2’.