All the way through J.J. Abrams’ perfectly congenial Super 8, I kept wondering: who is this film for? Child-friendly though it is, it’s obviously not aimed at kids, who expect something less nostalgic than the story of middle-school students in a 70’s suburb riding bikes and making a zombie movie. And if you grew up watching E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, you’ll appreciate the references, but a flat-out nostalgia-fest isn’t really enough. Like a too-faithful screen adaptation afraid to tinker with a novel, this adoring homage to Spielberg is easier to admire than to love.
It is easy to slip into and to like, though, even if it never engages the emotions as much as it should, because Abrams knows how to keep the action moving. The central Spielberg-inspired character is Joe, son of the town’s deputy sheriff (Kyle Chandler, clean-cut coach from Friday Night Lights changing seamlessly to clean-cut cop). Joe’s mother has recently died in an accident, but taking away the Mom instead of the Dad doesn’t make him any less like Elliott in E.T.. Joel Courtney, who plays Joe, even looks like a slightly older Elliott.
Joe’s best friend, Charlie, is the young cineaste, who has enlisted his pals to make a movie, along with Alice, a pretty blonde girl both Joe and Charlie like. Elle Fanning, so thoroughly natural in Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere, shows impressive range here as sad-eyed Alice, who has no mother, but does have a belligerent father who drinks. Playing the wife in Charlie’s little movie, it turns out Alice is actually good; the way we see the difference between Alice acting and Elle acting adds a lovely little grace note. And when the kids sneak out late at night to shoot their film, Abrams treats the era of Super 8 movie making - pre-computers, digital cameras, cell phones – like a relic of a more innocent time. I suspect that nostalgia for old movies plays a big part in the wave of swoony Super 8 reviews.
The kids’ charming movie scenes are interrupted by a train wreck that leads to an explosion gigantic even by action-movie standards -- flaming railroad cars are tossed through the air - staged by Abrams with a brio that is more Mission Impossible than Spielberg. Soon the Air Force swoops in, microwaves and pets go missing, and eventually the kids track down a secret which - no big surprise even if you’ve only seen a trailer – involves a creature not of this earth.
Explosions aside, what we're seeing is a string of Spielbergian moments. Joe has his humane, E.T. connection with the creature. The alien is not shown in its entirely until very late in the film, and then we see that it looks quite deliberately retro. Super 8 is so loaded with backward-looking references that some aren’t even directly about Spielberg. The film is a little evocative of Stand by Me, nostalgia for childhood personified. But then it is more sharply reminiscent of Dawson’s Creek, with Alice crawling into Joe’s bedroom window the way Joey (Katie Holmes in her own more inocent time !) used to crawl into Spielberg-obsessed Dawson’s.
There is a magical scene at the end, a Close Encounters homage, in which we see - for reasons I won’t reveal - a glittering tower of metal magically take shape. As the kids and their parents watch, a gleaming alien light straight from the Spielberg playbook shines on their wide-eyed faces. (You can see it in the photo above.) But it’s borrowed magic.
And as the credits run at the end, we see Charlie’s finished film, a hilarious mock-mystery that brings in cops, zombies and romance in a soup of beloved genres. It says a lot about our low-key engagement with Super 8 that this final bit jolts us with a wit and energy missing from the rest of the film.
Mission Impossible III and Star Trek show us that Abrams knows how to make and remake genre movies, but only that last sequence has the flash of freshness that gives Super 8 a life of its own.
Here's the trailer. And follow this link to see The Attic, a brief horror film Abrams made as a boy, which he brought to Jimmy Kimmel Live.