Super 8 ****

Since the Spielberg heyday of E.T. and The Goonies, we’ve been waiting for a really smart, contemporary kids sci-fi adventure to match. Although Super 8, a project produced by the film-maker and written and directed by another great, J.J. Abrams (Cloverfield), is a damn fine extraterrestrial Noughties version that will totally capture the hearts and imagination of the younger audience, it doesn’t quite have the striking and lasting emotional connection of E.T. Nevertheless, it’s Abrams indulging in his/our nostalgia, pressing all the right buttons, and wearing a big soppy heart on his sleeve in the process.

Set in the summer of 1979, Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) and friends are into their Super 8mm film-making, and through the eye of young horror fan, director Charles (Riley Griffiths), set off to the local train station to grabs shots for their next scene, starring the boys’ secret crush, Alice (Elle Fanning). What happens next startles the group when they witness a mysterious train crash that involves one of their teachers. Soon after, they begin to notice strange happenings going on in their small town, and begin to investigate the creepy phenomenon.

Super 8 can be described as an engaging cross between coming-of-age exploration films like The Goonies, with tender, heartfelt moments of Stand by Me, and Abrams’s supernatural, alien fascination. Naturally, the kids are the heroes and mature overnight to solve the riddle, as well as trying to deal with growing up and their hormones kicking into touch. The film-making nod in the film points to a young Abrams’s developing hobby, and is also a blessing seeing imagination being used in a modern-day world dominated by video games. It also serves as a way into the characters’ personalities as we are exposed to their passions, frustrations and fears for the future. In this sense, it’s true retro 80s film-making in itself.

There are some exceptionally accomplished performances from all the young leads, including Courtney, Fanning and Griffiths, that keep you well and truly gripped, especially from newcomer Courtney who makes his highly impressive and touching debut here, and Fanning who demonstrates the same self-assured acting ability as her elder sibling, Dakota. In fact, Courtney’s immerging talent has landed him the role of Tom Sawyer in a 2013 adaptation, speaking volumes for his impact here. The kids’ thirst for intelligent answers matches our own curiosity, as Abrams slow-drips the information as to what’s happening in the bigger picture. As a result of the writer/director understanding where they stand and giving them a more mature outlook on the whole affair, adult viewers won’t get left behind while revelling in memories of their yonder years, and are right behind the intrepid adventurers in their big face-off.

It’s this part of the film that does feel a little ‘alien’ from the rest; the whole extraterrestrial confrontation is a tad uneven and rushed, reaching a resolution without anyone putting up much of a fight. Indeed, with kids in mind (12A rating), not too much gore can be shown. Still, Abrams either had to cut these cavernous scenes right back, or the budget went on the impressive and bone-chilling train crash at the start. That said the aliens in the film are not portrayed as monsters as such, and are in the same mindset as the District 9 visitors – misunderstood, rather than wantonly destructive. And it’s this renewed knowledge that makes the young heroes more accommodating than their jaded parental figures and their knee-jerk reactions in the film.

As for the special effects (and thankfully NO 3D), ‘more is less’ than recent sci-fi action dramas, with a lot of parallels between the limited resources and tools of the kids’ horror flick and the use of more emotive lighting effects than CGI in Abrams’ bigger frame. Indeed, after all the grandeur of the ending that’s reminiscent of E.T., we get to see Courtney and co’s final cut before the credits role, hopefully inspiring a new wave of film-making talent in the school summer holidays.

4/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Monsters – 4*

For a film with such an emotive title that conjures up all kinds of stereotypical sci-fi imagery of Earth being taken over by extraterrestrial life forms, Monsters by documentary film-maker Gareth Edwards is quite the opposite. It’s actually a surprisingly tender relationship study between two humans that blossoms amongst nature of the Earth and alien kind, here on this fair planet. It also helps that little-known leads Scoot McNairy and Whitney Able (All The Boys Love Mandy Lane) are a real-life couple, too, making their union on the screen seem all the more stronger and believable, complete with the inevitable highs and lows.

The sci-fi element that you would come to expect from the film gradually develops into a peripheral factor that intermittently thwarts the couple’s path to true love, like ‘a sci-fi obstacle course’ that strengthens their resolve. But fear not; this is not a ‘rom-com in an alien disguise’ either. It’s just a very personable journey with two intriguing characters that has alien dangers to it, but what the real danger is, is apparent in the end.

Edwards’ style of ad-libbing certainly pays off, and which also highlights his documentary roots. As his first feature film was always going to be a gamble at the box office, it’s interesting to speculate whether the strong relationship factor really was Edwards’ original intention, or whether this film is a taster for an intended saga, with Monsters establishing the characters, and a more revealing sequel about the alien life on Earth to follow? Certainly, those expecting a pitch battle between humans and aliens will be disappointed. The closest our couple get is a Jurassic Park-style encounter with some Triffid/Martian-like creatures that results in man being more brutal than the former.

That’s the beautiful ambiguity of the title: Who are the true Monsters – us or them? There are lots of parallels flagged between ‘aliens’ and US immigration issues on the Mexico/US border – much like the ‘illegal alien invasion’ parallels in District 9. Although this is a well-trodden film topic, Monsters does well not to dwell on the matter because the relationship is key, and how our leads learn to respect and live alongside another race.

The alien segments are undoubtedly homage to James Cameron, from pulsating, luminous wildlife in the trees, as in Avatar, to illuminated aliens straight out of The Abyss. This appears to be Edwards’ self-indulgent aspect of his film, allowing an insight into the creator’s mind of what might have been produced with a bigger budget to hand – although bigger is not necessarily better. Edwards’ credit here is just what he’s achieved in atmosphere and tension with very little finances.

The chosen pseudo-documentary style seems to be becoming the norm for this genre, as in District 9, as though any other cinematographic style would not be credible anymore. But the pace is a graceful, almost serene, especially in the jungle river scene, which is reminiscent of Werner Herzog’s Aguirre: The Wrath of God, allowing us to get a feel for the territory that the couple invades and disturb.

Monsters has déjà vu elements for certain, but it also has a unique style that feels slightly alien in itself. It’s often very relaxing to watch, like an extraterrestrial wildlife expedition from remote jungle land. The couple’s chemistry is genuine, as are the events like the parades in the film that justify Monsters being described as ‘the most realistic monster movie ever made’. For fans of the genre, it’s definitely one to catch and respect for its low-budget film-making values. In fact its success may be to Edwards’ detriment, should he have planned another, as money may give birth to a Hollywood monster instead.

4/5 stars

By L G-K