Steven Spielberg and JJ Abrams first collaborated in 1995. Spielberg was producing Casper at the time and Abrams was a hot-shot young writer brought on board to contribute key scenes to the project. The legend was so impressed with the protégé that he vowed to work with him again. It almost happened in 2004 when Spielberg needed a writer for War of the Worlds and he turned to his young Casper scribe. By this time, however, Abrams was knee-deep in his mega-hit TV Lost and reluctantly had to pass up the opportunity. Again, both film-makers vowed to find a suitable future project on which to join forces.
That Super 8 should be that project comes as no surprise. Spielberg famously grew up in Arizona in the 1960s making movies on his father's Super 8 camera; Abrams did exactly the same in LA in the 1970s. Little wonder then that both should be drawn to a story set in 1979 about geeky kids who, while shooting a zombie movie after school, find themselves inadvertently capturing a train crash on film that precipitates an extraterrestrial mystery.
Super 8 is an unashamedly nostalgic coming-of-age movie in which youngsters ride around on BMX bikes, listen to Blondie and The Knack, and marvel at the wonders of the Sony Walkman. Think The Goonies meets Stand by Me meets ET and you’ll get the general idea.
As with that last Spielberg masterpiece, Super 8 unfolds through the eyes of the kids on screen, including Joel Courtney, Ryan Lee and Elle Fanning. All are terrific as the youngsters whose personal teen issues are set aside as their community attempts to cope with a monstrous threat. The real standout, however, is Elle Fanning. Up until now, this 13-year-old has been better known as Dakota's kid sister, even playing younger versions of her more famous sibling in I Am Sam and the TV series Taken. From now on, Dakota is likely to be known as Elle’s big sis, such is the quality of her performance here.
Well shot, well paced and featuring enough thrills and spills to send the popcorn flying, Super 8 is one of the best movies you’ll see all summer. If it does have a flaw, it lies with some uninteresting sub-plots, invariably involving the adult cast. Abrams either didn’t have the guts or the inclination to follow Spielberg’s lead on ET and shoot the whole thing entirely through the eyes of the kids (literally at their eye level), keeping the adults as peripheral, authority figures, recognisable only as wielders of torches and keys.
Other summer movies have offered bigger budgets and starrier casts, but Super 8 is the one they’ll be all talking about, and not just because of Abrams’ buzz-generating marketing campaign. This may be JJ Abrams’ baby, but Steven Spielberg’s hand is all over this cracking sci-fi flick.