Dir: JJ Abrams
Despite its frequently abundant charm and fine, largely very young and inexperienced, cast, Super 8 doesn't quite work the way it should, and there's one blindingly obvious reason for that; writer/director JJ Abrams hasn't decided which of his two movie ideas he wants to make, the comic drama about a group of 12 and 13 year old kids making a super 8 movie to enter in a film festival, or a monster movie involving the air force taking possession of a small town. Unable to choose, Abrams jams the two together, and the result is never cohesive.
The film divides roughly in half. The first concentrates on setting up the kids and their relationships, and is definitely the part in which Abrams most nakedly - and most effectively - pays tribute to his hero (and producer) Steven Spielberg. The boys playing the group of friends are mostly first timers, and Abrams has found a remarkably natural set of young actors, all of whom do nice work even though some of their characters are a little one note (notably Ryan Lee's Cary, an explosives obsessive who would be tiresome but for Lee's funny and energetic performance). The standouts are the kids with the most developed parts; Riley Griffiths as auteur in training Charles, whose husky build ("the doctor says I'm going to lean out, it just hasn't happened yet") makes him nervous of talking to his leading actress Alice (Elle Fanning) and Joel Courtney as make up artist and on set odd job guy Joe, who has a very Spielbergian backstory (dead Mother, inattentive Father, love of movies, crush on the school beauty). Both young actors do some great work, with Courtney really standing out in his scenes with Fanning, and Griffiths coming into his own later, when Charles and Joe argue over Alice (one of many scenes from this side of the film that felt, at least to this viewer, very familiar indeed).
Like I said, all the kids do well, but one of them exists in a league all their own, and that's Elle Fanning. I've been tipping the younger of the Fanning sisters as a major talent since I saw The Nines, and every time I see something new from her I feel freshly vindicated. What's really amazing about her is her subtlety, and as Alice she fills her performance with little moments that communicate a great deal. In two standout moments we see her, as Alice, slip effortlessly into character. It's an amazing feat of acting for a 12 year old, because Alice never goes away during these moments, we're watching Alice act, not Elle Fanning. Though the film lurches further and further off the rails as its second hour runs on, one thing always works; the boys desire to save Alice, because quite apart from being beautiful Fanning creates a warm character who you feel would have been fun to have as a friend when you were these kids age.
All of the character stuff works; the awkward silences that pass for a relationship between Joe and his heartbroken dad (Kyle Chandler); the tense situation created by Joe's friendship and growing infatuation with Alice (and the backstory behind it, related by Fanning in one of her best moments); the dynamic between the kids and the way they pull together for Charles' movie. This all adds up to a great first 45 minutes, and it's why Super 8 is a monster movie that doesn't need its monster.
The monster first appears (I say appears, Abrams contrives - in ways that become increasingly strained - to hide it until the film's final scene) about an hour in to Super 8, and from there on the film begins a sad slide into formula, away from the engaging story of these kids, their families and their movie towards an increasingly dumb and derivative monster movie. The problems are many, one pressing one being that, while it is scary to keep your monster hidden in the first set piece it is involved in (and that set piece, scored to Heart of Glass on a teenage gas station clerk's new-fangled walkman, is the best in the movie), those scares do tend to be undermined when, five set pieces later, we still don't know what this thing is. The last half hour is especially problematic, as Abrams throws out much of the character detail to focus on the hunt for the monster and for Alice, and while Joe certainly seems to be a smart kid I just don't buy how quickly he makes connections as to where he will find them, as there is not really a logical chain of information for him to follow. The creature, when we finally see it, is well designed, but Abrams' late in the day attempt to give it some personality results in an absolutely toe curling climax in which the film - perhaps appropriately for an homage to 80's Spielberg very nearly drowns in sentimentality.
JJ Abrams is clearly a capable director, after all he's drawn fine performances from a large cast here, and he stages action quite well, with all the set pieces feeling at least intelligible (though some are a bit darker than I'd like). However, Super 8 does have some directorial issues. First, and I really can't stress this enough, Abrams really, REALLY, needs to lay off the fucking lens flare. Secondly, and perhaps more pressing, some of the CGI here, notably the train crash, doesn't quite come off. I know this is 2011, but given the film's retro feel, love of the homemade, and 1979 setting, wouldn't practical effects have been a nice idea? The fakeness of some of the effects also slightly undermines your engagement in the film's action, which is never a good thing. On the plus side though, the film does largely look good, the period detail is strong, and it's not in 3D, retrofitted or otherwise.
I would on balance recommend Super 8. It's not consistent, it's not cohesive and it's not as good as it could (and should) be... but that first hour or so is tremendous, the kids are wonderful and you absolutely owe it to yourself to see Elle Fanning's latest tour de force performance, trust me, we'll be talking about her for a long time to come.