All great directors have trademarks – creative calling cards that immediately distinguish their movies from those helmed by anyone else. It’s ironic, then, that for J.J. Abrams, this manifests itself as the tendency to recreate films he loves, rather than create something that feels really, truly new. In short: his trademark is emulating other directors’ trademarks.
Funnily enough, though, sometimes this approach works far better than you’d expect – like with 2011’s Super 8. Released this month five years ago, Super 8 is an unabashed love letter to Steven Spielberg’s 1970s and 80s output, however, it also manages to transcend its nostalgic roots to tell a unique and disarmingly personal story of its own.
Set in Ohio in 1979, Super 8 introduces us to 14-year-old Joe (Joel Courtney), who recently lost his mother in a steel mill accident. Together with his friends Charles (Riley Griffiths), Preston (Zach Mills), Martin (Gabriel Basso), and Cary (Ryan Lee), Joe spends his every waking moment shooting a zombie movie for a local Super 8 competition.
Soon, these budding filmmakers are joined by Alice (Elle Fanning) – who happens to be the daughter of the man Joe’s father Jack (Kyle Chandler) blames for the death of Joe’s mother. As a romance slowly begins to blossom between Joe and Alice, the group stumbles upon an otherworldly force far more deadly than any monster in their movie, one that the US military will do anything to contain.
First and foremost, Super 8 is a great example of what J.J. Abrams is capable of when he uses his influences as a jumping-off point to create an original story, rather than as an excuse to re-tell an existing one. Sure, Super 8 is at times strongly reminiscent of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but it never feels like a complete lift of either of those films, even when wearing its inspirations a little heavily on its sleeve.
This is largely thanks to the autobiographical elements Abrams has woven into Super 8‘s script. Super 8 is Abrams sharing what it was like growing up a movie-obsessed kid making short films – and in that sense, it’s easily the writer-director’s most personal effort to date. Layer on top the film’s meditation on pain – accepting it, letting go of it, moving on from it – and this is arguably Abram’s most emotionally engaging flick, too.
Still, the credit for landing these emotional beats belongs to Super 8‘s young cast. There’s no weak link among the child actor ensemble Abrams has assembled, and Fanning and Courtney are especially impressive. Chandler also deserves props for finding depth in what could have been a one-dimensional role, and his compassionate take on Jack allows us to sympathise with him even as we want to give him a hard slap!
Adding some extra shine to the actors’ performances is Larry Fong’s gorgeous cinematography. Seriously: Super 8 looks fantastic. Sure, Abram’s ongoing love affair with the lens flare effect occasionally encroaches on Fong’s beautiful work, however, there’s no getting around what a lush-looking film this is, with its visuals subtly evoking the look (and filmmaking style) of the period. Toss in ILM’s dependably amazing (if not quite seamless) visual effects – including the most spectacular train crash sequence in recent memory – and Super 8 lives up to the production values of the Spielberg blockbusters it’s emulating.
Then there’s the score by frequent Abrams collaborator Michael Giacchino. One of the most consistently excellent composers working today, Giacchino’s compositions call to mind the wonder, suspense, and emotion typically associated with a score by Spielberg regular (and living legend) John Williams, without sacrificing his own unique style at the same time.
Super 8 is proof positive that J.J. Abrams does his best work when channelling his cinematic influences into something fresh and original, not reverential and familiar. Backed by strong performances from its young cast, it boasts as much heart and wonder as the Steven Spielberg films that inspired it, resulting in an uncommonly engaging blockbuster that relies on more than nostalgia to succeed.