J.J. Abrams tries to make an E.T. for a new generation.
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Super 8 (Paramount Pictures), a sci-fi thriller written and directed by J.J. Abrams and produced by Steven Spielberg, consciously strives to evoke nostalgia for a certain 1970s childhood—not necessarily anyone's real childhood (though viewers born during the Johnson administration may feel a shock of recognition) but one that we all recognize from the movies. The small town where this movie takes place—the fictitious steel town of Lillian, Ohio—doesn't exactly resemble the tract-house suburbia of E.T., but both places exist on the same spiritual map. They're apparently ordinary settings in which mysterious, frightening, potentially wonderful things are happening just beyond the range of grown-up vision. Super 8 is at its best when it dwells in this secret childhood empire, and at its worst when it juices up its essentially simple story with increasingly senseless action set pieces.
The film's prologue establishes the setup with impressive economy: 14-year-old Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) has lost his mother in an industrial accident at the steel mill. Joe's father (Kyle Chandler), the deputy sheriff of the town, who's wrapped up in his own grief, tries to pack his son off to camp for the summer, but Joe refuses to go. He wants to help his friend Charles (Riley Griffiths) finish their Super-8 film project, a zombie movie they plan to enter in a local contest. (Abrams himself first came to Spielberg's attention when he entered a similar contest at age 15.) Joe, Charles, and three of their friends are filming a scene at an empty train station one night when they witness a spectacular and inexplicable train derailment. Over the next few days, weird things begin to happen in Lillian: All the town's dogs flee in packs, and microwaves and car engines disappear overnight. Soon, armed military police swarm the town, shutting down the deputy sheriff's inquiries with menacing non sequiturs.
During its middle section, the film essentially runs on two tracks at once: On track one, the kids struggle to finish their film, incorporating elements of the surrounding chaos for what movie-mad Charles terms their "production value." On track two, the whatever-it-is unleashed by the train crash ravages the town, eventually resulting in a military evacuation that's straight out of a George Romeromovie. Just about everything that happens on the kid track is phenomenal, and just about everything that happens on the monster track brings diminishing returns.
The mildly profane overlapping banter among the five young actors (who include Ryan Lee as Cary, a brace-faced pyromaniac, and Elle Fanning as Alice, the pensive girl of Joe's dreams) sounds so natural that it seems improvised at times. Joe and Charles' scenes together are better-written and acted than any depiction of adult male friendship I've seen on screen for a while: The boys' shifting power dynamic and long history with one another are established in the swiftest of strokes. And Joe's crush on Alice is similarly well delineated—aided by the fact that both novice Joel Courtney and lifelong veteran Fanning are terrific actors. In an early scene that promises riches the movie never quite delivers, Fanning is not just good but meta-good: playing a role in the Super-8 film within a film, she surprises the boys with a performance that gets both her fictional and real-life audiences a little verklempt.
Abrams' script operates according to a predictable rhythm that may derive from his years working in television, with a big barnstorming action sequence every half-hour on the half-hour. After each new variation on the same theme—basically, a disposable tertiary character witnesses a horrible offscreen event—we're more impatient to get back to the squabbling kids again. By the time we arrive at the climactic underground chase sequence, the threat posed by the creature (who isn't seen clearly until very late in the film) seems like a distraction from the more pressing concerns of the children. The Spielberg movies this film lovingly plunders—most notably E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind—had classically structured narratives whose science-fiction elements felt organically related to the rest of the story. (Elliott and E.T. cared about each other, as did, in their way, Richard Dreyfuss and the Close Encounters aliens.) By comparison, Super 8's creature seems like a pure McGuffin, a plot-advancing contrivance.
But to say Super 8 is no E.T. may be to set the bar too high. This may not be a children's classic that will last for generations, but it will make for a rollicking afternoon at the multiplex for kids around Joe's age. And their parents (who may, like me, be around J.J. Abrams' age) will appreciate the affectionate, at times obsessive, attention to period detail: Walter Cronkite on a wood-paneled TV, a candy counter stocked with vintage gum brands, a teenager bopping to Blondie on his newfangled Walkman. As a director, Abrams has at least one lesson to learn from the film crew of middle-schoolers which he created: Keep it simple. The Case, their no-budget zombie flick that plays out in its entirety over the closing credits, is so funny and sharply observed, it makes the multi-million-dollar spectacle that came before look like amateur hour.