Super 8 Review: The Magic is Mostly Still There

I've said it before, but when I was a kid, going to the cinema was a magical experience. I was shipped off to worlds and adventures that I could only dream of being able to experience in the dull real world. Steven Spielberg was a man that was responsible for many of those magical film moments. He knew how to create a protagonist that you could relate to, someone who wasn't that different form you and had his own issues he had to work through, and then Spielberg threw him into the most magnificent and fantastic of adventures. Two films that fit that description perfectly are ET (Spielberg directed) and Goonies (Spielberg produced). It was remembering that kind of cinematic magic that drew me to Super 8 and made it the movie I most anticipated this summer movie season.

The J.J. Abrams directed and Steven Spielberg produced Super 8 is clearly a homage to late 70s and early 80s era of Spielberg film making. The film is set in '79 and so it even captures the exact same time period as those films (except then it would have been modern). The film has a young boy as the protagonist, and he has a serious personal conflict to work through (in this case, he lost his mother to a freak work accident). Of course, there is a fantastical adventure that will not only involve the boy, but his rag tag group of quirky friends. Their adventure is hampered by a group of adults (in this case the military)that the boys must try to elude. To keep with the homage theme, there is a larger message of hope and love that climaxes the entire picture. If you were an avid watcher of such films in the early 80s, then you'll know Super 8 does a great job of capturing the necessary elements.

But how does that all make for a good film in 2011? Just fine. That is probably the problem. In the 80s, these films defined an entire genre and captured the imaginations of countless filmgoers. This time, I walked out of the cinema thinking, "It was pretty good." Though, it should have been more than just pretty good and it had the potential of being an all time classic. And don't get me wrong, it is a good movie, and if you like aliens and Spielberg and fantasy and such then you'll have a fairly enjoyable ride. But it had a few flaws and in the end, I walked away feeling that not all the magic was still there. Like my title promised, there is still some magic, but maybe it just missed a few important tricks.

Super 8 is an excellent homage to the old Spielberg pictures. That would be one of the problems, Abrams seems intent on trying capture all the elements and feelings of the classic films and doesn't allow the picture to become its own. The first half of the film was magnificent and did an amazing job of building up towards the alien. There was this huge sense of mystery and the entire thing was shrouded in ambiguity. You knew there was more than what was being told, but you didn't know exactly what. Abrams is a master at building up suspense and making you want to solve the mystery. Unfortunately, Abrams was so intent on capturing an ET like moment, that it caused the ending to unravel a bit. The second half didn't seem to fit with what was established in the first half. It felt like Abrams was just trying to throw together what he felt a Spielberg-like movie needed, rather put together the type of finish this film initially caused us to suspect and crave.

Though the plot and story may falter a little at the end, the characters are what drive this entire picture. The one thing that ensures that this movie keeps the magic and remains an enjoyable film, is the well developed and engaging characters. The film has five young boys that will become the heroes of the children viewers and evoke fond memories of childhood for the adults. You actually feel for and believe in the people that are in this film. In perfect Spielberg style, you have a hurting boy that is easy to relate to and displays the same type of emotions you'd expect to have in his situation. It also perfectly captures pre-teenhood (or at least, young teenagers). The dialogue is witty and humorous. The actions by the boys are funny but realistic. The film also contains adults, and though some play the necessary villain, there is adult characters that are well fleshed out and realistic. For the most part, they react in believable ways, rather than just do random things to progress the plot.

Super 8 is a young boy's adventure. I am sure it is a film that will capture the imagination of many pre-teen boys. It is a great blend of ET and Goonies. The film contains some very impressive effects and explosions -- especially the train crash at the beginning of the film. The eventual appearance of the alien is satisfying enough and he doesn't look overly CGIed like some other modern film creatures. The set designs of the film fit the 70's motif and does a good job of propelling you into that era. The effects and costumes are done well enough that you are lifted into the film rather than being aware you're just watching a silly movie. The cool effects and explosions will be enough to capture the attention of many young boys and your typical 'kid at heart' adults.

The special effects are great, but I think it is the humour and warmth that make the movie. There is several little jokes where the character make comments that will reference to a future that we now know about -- such as one character berating another for even thinking his camera film could be processed over night or a sheriff bemoaning a future where kids can walk around with portable steroes. The boys dialogue is authentic but full of the type of language that makes you chuckle -- the characters aren't trying to be funny but young boys say unintentionally funny things. You really do believe the relationships between the parents and children. Even though there is tension, you know that both love each other and the dillema is due to miscommunication and the typical adult/child barrier. There is a sweet and believable relationship between the protagonist and the leading lady -- a young child romance that is far more believable than most other films' attempts at relationships. Though I feel that Abrams tried too hard to have the message of love and hope ring through at the end, he does do a good job of peppering those moments throughout the film.

Super 8 is not an original movie or even a film that holds the same magic as the films it is a homage to. It is still a good movie. A film that has characters you can connect to and actually care what happens to them. It has the necessary amount of action and special effects. The first half of the film is one of the best examples of building suspense and intrigue. Though some of that pixie dust may have been rubbed off, Super 8 still holds on to a fair bit of the magic that made us all first love movies when we were a child.