The mantle for the boldest and strangest blockbuster-to-be thus far in 2011 belongs to Super 8 and writer/director J. J. Abrams, who mixes the oogie boogie monster movie elements of his previous feature Cloverfield (2008) with the broad retro inoffensiveness of ET (1982) or The Goonies (1985) and comes up with a movie tailored for neither adults nor children.

Super 8 was clearly supposed to be a blockbuster designed for the widest possible audience — thus the attachment of Stephen Spielberg as executive producer — but the target audience appears to be the relatively niche demographic of freshly pubescent tweens presumably hankering for thrills that surpass the entertainment values of Justin Bieber and the Twilight movies.

Abrams’ story setup is scrambled, unusual and interesting. A group of tweens sneak out of their homes late at night to make a dodgy short film and end up witnessing a terrible train crash. It’s terrible in a War of the Worlds sense; they shriek, squeal and sprint as a downpour of fire, metal and shrapnel rain upon them, all the while the fallen camera filming something they will inevitably view later on.

The train was carrying unusual cargo: white objects that look like Rubik’s Cubes stripped of colours. Before the budding shoddy filmmakers can say “cut” the army is in town, tanks, guns, curt attitudes etcetera, rounding up citizens and sectioning them off Tomorrow When the War Began style. The white objects are superfluous decoys, smidges of dressing for a familiar creature feature narrative. A beast runs rampant. One of the kids goes missing. The others decide to rescue her.

The five young’uns who form the pre-pubescent principal cast contribute performances perfectly pitched for the nonsense unfolding around them and from an acting POV carry the film with weight and charisma usually attributed to actors well beyond their years.

The film’s first act is beautifully Spielbergian, a sense of epic-in-wait framed in the context of suburban kids breaking rules for things they believe in. The action scenes are off and on, often exciting for their random sound-n-fury exploding set pieces and shenanigans, but always either an amalgamation or an offshoot of things we’ve seen before.

Where Super 8 fails spectacularly is in its depiction of the relationship between the beast (mum’s the word – no spoilers here) and the human characters, which, foolishly, Abrams relies on to close the film. The central relationship between man (read: child) and alien in Spielberg’s E.T. came to fruition so effectively because the audience along with the characters grew, through a skillfully fostered dynamic, to empathise with the strange being they are asked to morally contemplate. District 9 (2009) pulled off a similar feat but Super 8 gets the process muddled and weird, and the ending is deep fried garbage with a dollop of cheese on top.

Overall there’s a fair bit to admire about Super 8, and an awful lot of room for improvement.

Super 8’s Australian theatrical release date: June 9, 2011

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