That Super 8 has the audacity to arrive on a marketing platform billing it as an original film is more a testament to the cesspool of derivative sequels, reboots and unimaginative new franchises that have already made this, the Summer of Sequel, such a perfunctory, unengaging play for box office receipts. In this climate, an earnest (if borderline shameless) tribute to the director least in need of a profile boost is a momentary breath of fresh air at the multiplex, even if, in isolated moments, it feels like no more than the perfumed bathroom of a smoky casino floor.
By the same token, as much as the film appropriates Spielbergian themes, stylistic touches and, of course, referential shots, Super 8 works best as a self-contained film about the possibility of a young kid's love for escapist film coming to life. Some scenes of this movie are downright comically outsized when set against the dirtied, naïve prepubescents who run through monster rampages, military quarantines and, eventually, an all-out war zone. But this also makes for a film that digs deeper into Steven Spielberg's entire ethos as a filmmaker until it arrives at last to the wide-eyed Boy Scout within the world's richest, most powerful director, the kid who would make a Western just to get a merit badge and would find ways to show his love for the films of his youth even in his late career..
Abrams focuses Super 8 on a group of kids in an Ohio town who pass the time by making movies with the titular film stock. Charles (Riley Griffiths), a portly, imaginative boy whose childhood fighting for air among his many siblings makes him sufficiently bossy and hard-edged to be a director, works on zombie films with his friends. Looking for "production value," Charles has his crew set up a scene at the town train station after dark, and when an actual locomotive toots and chugs toward them in the distance, he can scarcely contain his glee. So excited is he to get his shot that he ignores how fast the train is moving, how sinisterly large it is, and the sound of a pickup truck jumping on the tracks and heading right for the oncoming vehicle.
The resulting crash rips apart the dour calm established by the quietly moody opening and leads to a monster movie that blends elements of Jaws, Cloverfield and, unexpectedly, the wondrous optimism of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. If it does not reach the tense heights of Spielberg's own monster movie nor the purity of his idealistic view of alien "invasion," Super 8 at least improves upon the Abrams-produced modern monster movie by introducing characters who actually feel like people and are worthy of our attention. This child cast he assembled is revelatory, from Griffiths' self-blind bossiness to Gabriel Basso looking and sounding like a young Martin Starr, which will always score bonus points with this writer.
But Abrams scored a coup with Joel Courtney, who portrays protagonist Joe Lamb. A meek, gentile boy dealing with his mother's death in a mill accident and his (naturally) absentee father, Deputy Jackson Lamb (Kyle Chandler). We get an insight into the effect this has had on the boy with wonderfully understated character quirks: he keeps his mother's locket and does makeup for Charles' zombie shorts, traditionally feminine qualities that gratefully never elicit lazy homophobia or cissy jokes from his friends. In a film teeming with Spielberg's influence, Courtney's darting eyes (both nervous and curious), fleeting smile and sense of stunted, frozen-in-time innocence captures so many of Spielberg's films and performances within them that Spielberg himself must have made sure to file his name for future use. At least, I hope he did.
Joe finds a counterpoint in Alice (Elle Fanning, rapidly becoming a young actress who cannot be ignored), a pretty but tough girl raised by an alcoholic deadbeat. She can never think of a good reason for agreeing to be in Charles' movie with all these dorks, but she keeps showing up even after the wreck, implicitly dealing with her own feelings of a rough childhood. She and Joe share a moment watching an old home movie that taps so completely into the best of Spielberg's sentimentality that, for a moment, the film feels less like a loving tribute to him than the latest entry in the director's actual filmography. Super 8 may be loud and tense, but Joe and Alice make the quiet moments, the starry-eyed bits that remain even after the rampage begins, all the more touching.
If the emotional content achieves a quality worthy of its own distinction, the actual action does admittedly feel like a collection of allusions to Spielberg and, to my delighted surprise, Bong Joon-ho's The Host. The references pile up, and for some, the film will amount to no more than "Spielberg porn," but I prefer another writer's summary: "Spielberg erotica." Super 8 is too fond, lightly teasing and emotive to be naught but a slapped-together affair of someone else's work. Abrams seeks to visualize a cinematic form of the realized dreams of aspiring kid filmmakers like young Spielberg and George A. Romero (who also made Super 8 movies as a lad): their dreams came true when they hit the big time, while Super 8 works on a Last Action Hero-esque level of making the genre films that stick with youths become reality. Viewed from that perspective, a vein of pure glee runs through even the tensest moments of Super 8 that makes it hard to suppress a grin.
Of course, "erotica" might also be the operative term over "porn" because the former deals with foreplay and titillation while the latter has a follow-through, something Abrams has yet to master. The last act of the film goes off the rails, moving between a chaotic battlezone as malfunctioning machinery causes soldiers to fire on each other instead of the monster and a subterranean layer that's too murky and monotonous to carry the same tension the film maintained earlier in isolated pockets of Lillian. There is also the matter of the lens flares, which Abrams uses so often it became something of a running joke at my screening; J.J. could find a way to put a blue lens flare on a shot of infinite black with only a smoldering cigarette butt for light. In a film that spends so much time trying to evoke one of the master stylists of mainstream film, this amateurish signature threatens to break the illusion that we're watching some lost movie made by talented, imaginative directors in that brief window of studio opportunity in the '70s.
And yet, as much as I sometimes felt like I were watching a supercut of Spielberg films on YouTube rather than an "original" movie, Super 8 has an irrepressible charm to it. It has no real reason to be set in the '70s, but it's nifty to go back to a time when a girl would actually have to ask "How do I act like a zombie?" because these genres hadn't been done to death. (I did laugh inordinately hard at my Twitter pal, Leora, though, when she responded to Fanning's question with "Act like you're in a Sophia Coppola film," which nicely demonstrates why we get along so well). Like Spielberg's own Indiana Jones movies, Super 8 collects the tropes and plots of movies dear to its director's heart and packages them into something both derivative and special. Its most charming and winsome cultural artifact is its total lack of self-consciousness; apart from a few deflating lines by brace-faced pyromaniac Carey (my least favorite character by a long shot), this is not a film that soft-pedals its sincerity or stands outside itself offering preemptive self-criticism. It merely exists to entertain, which is different from most ostensibly "fun" movies these days, nearly all of which are transparent profit grabs even on the parts of their makers.
I would have liked to see more physical effects over CGI to really capture the retro feel, but Super 8, like the best of its mentor's mainstream fare, overcomes its flaws, redundancies and occasional immaturity to make a blockbuster that can be calculated to the millisecond to eke an audience response yet earn every wrenched jolt or tear. Frustrating as the movie can be at times, that sense of engineered earnestness is becoming all too rare these days, and I'd rather hang out in the nostalgic, sharp world of Super 8 than have to hear one more assurance that X-Men: First Class read like it was conceived for 9-year-olds because "that's true to the comics."