The director of Star Trek (2009) and Mission Impossible 3 (2006) once again demonstrates his immense love for lens flair in this nostalgic ode to films and filmmaking in the 1980’s.
Some may find it irritating, but I really appreciate a director who steadfastly adheres so an aesthetic choice, even if it makes little sense to the plot. What’s that in the sky? Is it a UFO? Nope, in this case it’s just light reflecting off the lens. Brilliant. Lenses are an important factor of the tension in Super 8, which sees a gang of early teens, in the style of The Goonies (1985) or E.T (1982), investigate an alien presence in their small town in Ohio. Shot on a combination of RED digital, the eponymous 8mm and 35mm – the tradition of analogue filmmaking is very much at the heart of Abrams’ Spielberg distilled Sci-Fi. The tension comes from the deliberately 1980’s aesthetic - the production design seeming to owe so much to Spielberg’s 1982 classic, from the brown home interiors to the nod to the emergence of the Sony WALKMAN. This combined with the appearance of the grain on the filmstrip – a visible signifier of the pre-digital past. The grain is all part of the nostalgia, but this being a film made nearly thirty years after Elliot discovered an alien in his back yard, the effects are far from attributable to the analogue. As a result we get beautiful scenes of the chaos of small-town life looking as if it has been literally lifted from E.T and a motion-capture CG alien running tearing up a train crash and running amok at the local gas station. What’s interesting is where the love of the grain colludes with the necessity of delivering a creature that will comply with a 21st century’s audience expectation. No longer can we be satisfied with Bruce the shark, in all his rubbery menace. Two scenes in the film show the gang watching super 8 films, in which the alien can be seen, all fluid movements of its spider-like limbs. Knowing that this is a digital effect, presented as supposedly the past within the time frame of the films’ events, juxtaposes old technology with new, in a brilliant demonstration of multiple mediation in the post-photographic age. We love the grain, but we don’t need the grain in order to signify the past, we can fake it with digital effects. A film that is so obviously a love affair with past filmmaking practices belies its integrity through the force of invention.
This is not to say that the film isn’t hugely enjoyable. Though lacking originality – (any parent would be wise to simply sit their kids down with a screening of E.T rather than this: it’s for those who can remember riding a Chopper or using a CB radio). Abrams creates enough thrills and humour to entertain for the duration of the running time. The choice to cast relative unknown’s as the kids, (with the exception of Elle Fanning as Alice who was last seen in Sophia Coppolas’ Somewhere) is also an effective one and the chemistry between them as they bicker their way through making a zombie film and escaping death-by-alien is very entertaining. Unfortunately the film’s Spielberg-ness extends all the way to its conclusion, with the creature defying expectations based on its previous behaviour, in favour of a family friendly face-off between boy and deadly extra-terrestrial.