In a group reminiscent of The Goonies, it could’ve been quite easy for any of the young cast to get lost in the crowd or beneath the performances of the older and, in some cases, more experienced actors. But they hold their own and each has a distinct and important part to play in the plot. The stars of the show are Joel Courtney (Joe) and Riley Griffiths (Charles) - despite this being the feature film debut for both actors the rapport between them is fantastic, and their banter and friendship is something that keeps the story going from start to finish.
Elle Fanning (younger sister of Dakota) has talent in her own right and proves this with her moody entrance in her first scene. When filming the film-within-a-film, she leaves the teenaged cast and crew speechless, not to mention a little teary eyed, and this reaction is certainly well deserved. There are many other notable performances in the film, such as Kyle Chandler, who plays Joe’s father and the Deputy of Lillian, the town in which the film is set. There’s even a cameo from The Simpsons' Dan Castalleneta thrown in for good measure.
The filmic styles of J.J. Abrams and Steven Spielberg work well together and Spielberg’s influence on J.J. is apparent throughout: his trademark use of emotional ‘moments’ in with very little action and a change in two characters’ relationship taking place (accompanied by the necessary ‘tug-at-the-heartstrings’ music) occur on more than one occasion. This is particularly true of the interaction between the Deputy and his son.
The auteur’s favourite composer, John Williams, was not asked to write the score for Super 8; instead, it was Abrams’ musical accomplice, Michael Giacchino, but as with most of the content in this film even the score pays homage to the style of the film’s producer.
This is J.J.’s first film writing role since Mission: Impossible 3. Even so, it was definitely worth the wait, as this genius has he still got skills. He creates a balance of tension and emotion that at points is so heightened you’re clutching the arm rests and then, the next minute, you’re left feeling mushy inside.
He’s taken some inspiration from Spielberg with regards to family and relationships, too. The father/son interaction is a classic example of Spielberg’s style - broken family, son misunderstood by emotionally unavailable father, lots of arguing, etc.
I’d like to think the interest in film-making on the part of the teens is a throwback to the childhoods of the film-makers - both very into making movies when they were young. Basing some elements of the story on real experiences helps to give it a natural feel, which Super 8 has in spades.
Instead of employing his famed “mystery box” technique (something which he learned form his grandfather) - usually deployed to maintain an element of mystery so that you keep watching - Abrams allows you see the creature.
This takes away some of its ferocity, which in turn helps you to empathise with it. The real villains are the Air Force personnel who captured and tortured it in the first place. As is usual with most sci-fi films of this ilk, the humans shoot first and ask questions ... well, in this case, pretty much not at all. The Air Force’s main goal is to re-capture their prisoner and shut everyone else up, burying it under a huge conspiracy.
I like the fact that Abrams has chosen to use an ensemble cast comprised of less than well known actors as having someone with more renown would’ve detracted from the story. The only criticism I have is the ending - it’s rather abrupt, almost like they ran out of time and had to quickly wrap it up without giving any real explanation for what happens after the big event. Was it all covered up? Probably. Will there be any more aliens coming to visit Earth, or even an invasion a la War of the Worlds? Who knows.
It’s a good thing the film has such a strong cast, because the last quarter is completely character driven, when perhaps the best thing would’ve been for the story to flow to a natural conclusion through its narrative. Despite this, the it is very well done and I hold both Abrams and Spielberg in high regard for pulling it off with such a well-played balance of relationship, setting and plot.
Go watch it. I’m sure you’ll love it as much as I did.