Before we start, let’s get the obligatory Spielberg references out of the way. Yes, J.J. Abrams’ Super 8 owes a huge debt to its producer’s past glories but to tar it as a knock-off does the film an injustice. Super 8 deserves to stand upon its own two feet as its own monster. Crucially, it’s extremely unlikely to be a Jurassic Park or The Goonies and be remembered with misty-eyed nostalgia for a couple of reasons. One, the camaraderie between the young cast never gets chance to fully soar as lesser characters are pushed to the background as the film progresses, and secondly, there’s a difference between a film involving dinosaurs in which one of the scariest scenes shows ripples in a glass of water and one in which a monster is shown to eat its living hostages alive as they hang upside down. The point is that Super 8 isn’t a child-friendly film to grow up on, it’s a damn fine monster movie which is genuinely quite thrilling.
The story revolves around a bunch of kids making a Super 8 film, led by director Charles (Riley Griffiths), Joe (Joel Courtney, both fantastic in their first major roles) and reluctant lead Alice (Elle Fanning). On a night shoot, a truck drives into a passing train upon setting off an almighty crash. Then things start getting a little weird. Where are the dogs running to? Why is the air force so hands on yet so secretive? And what burst out of that carriage?
Note to Michael Bay: the train crash in here is a master class in how to do a multitude of explosions yet have the viewer feel involved and exhilarated. As shards of metal pierce the ground and fireballs singe the hair on the back of your hands, the result is nothing less than captivating. Furthermore, the central performances are fantastic. Amongst the kids, the most experience by far is Fanning, who shows maturity well beyond her years, and when they’re all together, there’s a real sense of togetherness, meaning that when the group eventually separates, it’s a shame this never really flourishes.
Some may criticise the film for being a bit too close to Cloverfield and these comparisons are valid(an unseen monster causing havoc, evacuations en mass, potentially suicidal missions to save the heroine), yet Super 8 manages to pull it off just as well. The art of not revealing the monster or its origins until the film is well in only heightens the suspense, and ignore the 12A certificate, there are some genuine jumps and moments of terror, with one scene in a gas station ensuring you’ll never listen to Blondie alone again. In fact, the reveal of the monster actually shifts the gear down a notch or two and as the loose ends are tied together and suspense turns to drama, the film begins to flag.
Crucially, Super 8 at its best is just plain good fun. Whilst the ending is drenched in saccharine and may well be a step too far, the opening hour is as exciting and grin-inducing as anything you’re likely to see this year. Don’t let the Spielberg-lite judgements prevent you from going in- just don’t take your toddlers.