Even if Steven Spielberg weren’t credited as the producer of “Super 8,” his name would pop up in conversations about it. The movie, written and directed by J.J. Abrams, combines science fiction, the wonder of childhood, fear of the government, and daddy issues in a remarkably Spielbergian fashion. Abrams even goops up the ending a little bit, too, just for good measure.
But only a little bit! Like his idol-turned-collaborator, Abrams is remarkably adept at the art of good old-fashioned storytelling — in addition to being a whiz at the technical side of moviemaking — and “Super 8” is a reminder of how often those crucial elements are missing from big studio productions. You draw the audience in with a story that has a hint of mystery to it, you give them characters to root for and situations they can relate to, and you take them on a ride. It’s simple to explain, hard to execute. Abrams gets it.
In the summer of 1979, an ordinary group of 12- or 13-year-old Ohio boys spend their days using a Super 8 camera to make their own little zombie movie. The director is a likably precocious budding movie geek named Charles (Riley Griffiths), but the group’s de facto leader is Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney), a sensitive kid whose mother died in an accident just four months earlier, leaving him to be raised by his loving but overwhelmed father, sheriff’s deputy Jack Lamb (Kyle Chandler). All the boys are impressed when Charles gets a pretty girl from their class, Alice Dainard (Elle Fanning), to take a role in their movie — no one’s ever had the courage to even talk to her before — but it’s Joe who’s most smitten.
That might be beside the point, though, because: TRAIN WRECK. The five boys and Alice are shooting a scene late one night on the outskirts of town when they witness a spectacular train derailment, barely escaping with their lives and hightailing it out of there before anyone knows they saw it. The U.S. Air Force sweeps in quickly and closes off the scene, which makes a person suspect that something about the train, the cargo, or the accident was out of the ordinary. The next morning, Deputy Lamb, in trying to offer local law-enforcement assistance to the military, only gets the runaround from the military, represented by one Col. Nelec (Noah Emmerich).
Soon enough, as you might expect, some strange things begin to occur in the town. Dogs run away. Electrical equipment misbehaves, or disappears altogether. A couple people go missing. It has to do with Something that was on that train. This is plain as day to the kids, but they’ve been frightened into keeping quiet about having seen the crash. So they continue to make their movie while secretly trying to figure out what’s going on.
Nostalgia plays a significant part in the movie’s appeal. It captures the spirit of childhood — specifically, what it feels like to have been a kid, not to be one now. The world depicted here, a more innocent one where unsupervised kids ride BMX bikes everywhere, doesn’t really exist anymore. And neither does your childhood! You are old now. But remember how great it was to spend endless summer days hanging around with your buddies, conjuring up adventures, nursing crushes on the opposite sex? Remember the rare joy of knowing something that the grown-ups didn’t, even something minor and stupid? To a guy in his 30s, say, “Super 8” might stir up thoughts of “Stand By Me,” “The Goonies,” and “E.T.”
I thought about “Jurassic Park” a couple times as well, and marveled at the tension Abrams creates with his talented young cast, with the right use of Michael Giacchino’s musical score, and with the razor-sharp editing by Maryann Brandon and Mary Jo Markey. “Jaws,” that other touchstone of Spielberg-directed summertime thrills, no doubt taught Abrams the importance of nothing giving us a good look at the Something until the time is right.
What he doesn’t do quite as well as Spielberg, however, is hit the emotional notes. You’ll recall that “E.T.” was the story of a boy who made a friend more than it was a story about an alien coming to Earth — but that the “alien coming to Earth” aspect was pretty cool, too. “Super 8” strives for the same kind of balance and comes up short. The action-adventure-thriller-suspense portion is terrifically executed; the boy-and-his-father/coming-of-age/letting-go-of-loss element, not so much. That wouldn’t be a problem if the movie weren’t so obvious about wanting to end on a touching note.
But if the film’s ambitions slightly overreach its ability to deliver, that’s a better problem to have than not having any ambitions at all. For “Super 8,” it’s merely the difference between being a great film and being a very good one. I look forward to watching it again sometime, preferably projected on a large screen in a park some summer night.
B+ (1 hr., 52 min.; )