(J.J. Abrams, 2011)
Steven Spielberg's influence is so thorough and complete in the ways we produce, market and consume Blockbuster Cinema that it is difficult to overstate the effect his work has had upon American film. But few films dare to ape Spielberg's actual style or interests. For his follow-up to Star Trek, J.J. Abrams got Spielberg involved as a producer, and the result, the gently 80s-retro Super 8, is no less than a Spielberg pastiche, using Spielbergian visual motifs, Spielbergian music, accessing Spielbergian biographical detail - the geeky teens making their own movie - in a Spielbergian setting (generic yet idealised lower middle-class small-town America) all in an attempt to evoke a big Spielbergian surge of awed, dewy emotion.
That much it does well. There are many good things here: the core group of boys are terrific; playing recognisable types, they share a beautifully unforced chemistry as they bicker and make each other laugh in what is one of the best portrayals of boyhood friendship I've ever seen. Abrams excels with all of the set-up: the situation of the young hero, living with his widowed Father, his crush on a girl from school, and the enthusiasm and energy they all put into making their super-8 zombie movie is all grounded in a vividly atmospheric world with a tangible sense of place. Kyle Chandler, so consistently excellent on television in Friday Night Lights, is good here also, while Noah Emmerich is an effortlessly hissable military villain.
But that is part of the problem with Super 8; early on, it's a charming, nicely observed, impeccably shot (except for Abrams' habitual overuse of lens flares, which crop up again and again) story of small town boyhood. The genre component, while authentically Spielberian, is the films weakness. Some of the suspenseful set-pieces are well-done, but mostly it's derivative and horribly over-familiar in conception and execution. The E.T. echoes pile up, only without E.T.s quality. The creature design is almost comically predictable, and the final action sequence tame and anti-climactic.
Of course that's because the real climax is the emotional crescendo reached in the final scene, where Abrams seeks to evoke the big emotional thunderclaps familiar from early Spielberg. Only he never quite pulls it off. Michael Giacchino's soundtrack does much of the work, but Gacchino is no John Williams, and Abrams, for all his efforts, is no Spielberg, and so it ends on an emotional surge, but perhaps not quite as powerful as it could be.