Super 8

 Photo: Paramount Pictures
 (8 is more than enough.)

Starring Joel Courtney, Elle Fanning and Kyle Chandler. Directed by J.J. Abrams. 112 minutes. PG

Super 8 may kick off with a train wreck of epic (and possibly extraterrestrial) proportions, but J.J. Abrams’ sci-fi adventure film is anything but that. It blazes pre-established trails smoothly and near-effortlessly and moves at a pleasant pace. It’s fast enough to make it worth your while, but slow enough to give you a chance to take in the oft-missed scenery – which in this nostalgia-heavy case, is made up of the love lives, pet projects and various monstrosities (!) facing a group of tween cinephiles in 1970s Ohio.

Abrams pulled off an unimaginable feat while advertising Super 8, keeping the previews completely spoiler-free. In various interviews, the Lost creator, Star Trek director and Cloverfield producer has said that it was an attempt to recapture the magic of movies from his youth: the element of shared, in-theatre surprise. While he most definitely achieves that, he provides professional popcorn munchers with an even more pleasant punch line. He presents a film that completely ignores the last twenty or so years of high-budget, low-plot summer blockbusters, and picks up where Jaws, Back to the Future and Jurassic Park left off, using an out-of-this-world occurrence (and the spectacular special effects that come along with it) as the back-drop for down-to-earth dilemmas -- instead of the other way around. 
While the setting, soundtrack (Best “My Sharona” sing-a-long since Reality Bites!) and oddly in-style costumes (High-waisted flares and pastels!) harken back to many a terrific late 1970s, early 1980s drive-in flick (i.e. Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Goonies), Super 8 would be best subtitled as E.T. meets Freaks and Geeks. That is, if the geeks bowed down to George A. Romero as opposed to Steve Martin. And the freaks were played by AJ Michalka (yes, the half of Aly and AJ) and David Gallagher (yes, the blonde boy from 7th Heaven). 

The movie’s title refers to the type of film a group of young horror/fantasy movie nerds and budding filmmakers (Joel Courtney, Riley Griffiths, Ryan Lee, Zach Mills, Gabriel Basso) are using to record scenes for their short zombie movie. Since they are trying to get the freaky little flick into a festival, they have decided to spend their summer shooting, scripting, scouting locations and talking about it obsessively. Although not technically the leader at the film’s outset, the group’s Sam Weir is Joe Lamb (brand newcomer Courtney, who is Emile Hirsch’s doppelgänger in looks and Henry Thomas' in acting), a talented little monster make-up artist and model builder with who just lost his mom (in an unexplained accident) and as a result, is slowly losing his deputy dad (Kyle Chandler, TV’s Friday Night Lights). 

Things are going well for Joe and co. until the film’s director, Charles (Griffiths, a camera-wielding Chunk) realizes they’re missing something major: character development. It’s why people “care about what happens,” he says. So they enlist an older girl, Alice (Elle Fanning, who is giving her sister a run for her hard-earned money in the sincerity department), to play their leading man’s wife and a possible victim. But their plan gets slightly derailed when, well, that train I mentioned earlier crash lands all over their set, and sends strangely small white boxes and their creepy AP science teacher flying. 

At this point Abrams could have gone all-out B-movie, focusing directly on the Monster Squad-style pursuit of what will become a car engine-stealing, dog-thwarting force. But he takes a note from Charles – and his co-producer, Steven Spielberg, who injected feeling into mainstream sci-fi and fantasy films many times over throughout his impressive career. Sure, there are some crafty creature creep-outs (one scene literally seemed like a tribute to the bus attack in Jeepers Creepers 2), but Super 8 really soars when it zooms in on the human relationships which come out of them.  One of the best scenes is when the kids are all sitting at a diner, stealing each other’s fries and shooting the middle school shit. And don't get me started on the moment when Alice and Joe finally get some zombie face-time.

The emotion-heavy script is a bold choice on Abrams' part, leaving some questions unanswered and leads undeveloped as far as the big mystery goes, but it makes for a much more moving movie-going experience. You could argue that the film relies too heavily on this retro formula and tired kiddie adventure tropes, and doesn’t break any new ground as a result. However, in this day and age, it's quite the opposite. This generation needs to see that while decepticons and 3D dragons may look cool, without a great story and character to back them up, there's little to actually care about. Super 8 shows us that alien activity, in terms of blockbuster film content and tone, is not something to be afraid of, but fearlessly explored.  A-

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