Given that it's the brainchild of venerated super-director Steven Spielberg and rising star J.J. Abrams (best known for the most recent Star Trek and Cloverfield, as well as creating the groundbreaking television show, Lost), Super 8 isn't as innovative as you would expect. Except for a phenomenal train-wreck sequence that blows any 3-D special effects you're likely to see this summer out of the water, it's not innovative at all. And that is clearly just how Spielberg and Abrams want it.
Though the actual germination of Super 8 was no doubt far more corporate and calculating, I like to imagine it started with the pair casually bumping into each other at some Hollywood soirée. They start to bemoan the current state of popcorn movies. It's all giant robots (or billionaire playboys in giant robot suits) smashing things while dashing off witty one-liners. The dialogue may be clever, the leading men quirky, and the action spectacular, but they've got no heart. Remembering the great, good-time summer films of the past-many of them Spielberg's own-the two pledge to make a movie together that will recapture that spirit of wonder, exuberance, and feeling lacking in today's blockbusters.
And so, with Spielberg producing and Abrams writing and directing, we've got a movie where small-town characters and their small-town connections take center stage, while the scary things that happen to them are the icing on the cake.
In 1979, struggling to overcome the loss of his mother in a mill accident, 13-year-old Joe (Joel Courtney) finds solace making a zombie movie with his friends to submit to a local film festival. The earnestness and enthusiasm with which the boys approach the project will have many a middle-ager longing for his middle-school days. "We have to give [the protoganist] a wife," explains teenage auteur Charles (Riley Griffiths), "so people will know they love each other and care about what happens to him." It's an elementary lesson in storytelling many studio execs would do well to learn.
When the boys recruit a pretty, older girl (Elle Fanning) from their school to fill the part and sneak off at midnight to film at the train station where they hope the rumbling and whistling will boost their "production value," their plans for the summer take an abrupt turn. Instead of capturing an amateur movie scene with their Super 8 camera, they capture a train colliding with a pickup truck, as well as something else that may put them and their families in jeopardy.
After the train wreck, mysteries unfold at an exhilarating pace. What are the strange white cubes littered all around the crash site? Why are all the dogs and home appliances disappearing? Why has the army suddenly descended on their sleepy Ohio town? There's no question Abrams has a knack for layering intrigue. Unfortunately, as fans of Lost discovered, his ability to pay off on the towers of mystery he builds isn't quite as high, but by the time we get to the predictable revelations, we care enough about the characters that we're happy to follow them down a well-trod path.
The biggest mystery, however, is why Abrams chooses to include so much profanity. A movie about a group of kids stumbling upon a terrifying secret should be an ideal draw for tweens and teens. But the pervasive language, which, along with a couple of jokes about marijuana, earns the movie a PG-13 rating, does nothing to add to the authenticity of the characters, and will keep many family audiences away.
That irritating drawback aside, it's impossible not to get caught up in Abrams' nostalgia for summer days at the Cineplex gone by. Though he doesn't quite match his mentor Spielberg's excellence in movies like E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, he still gives his generation of filmmakers a worthy reminder that popcorn movies need more than great spectacle. They need great storytelling.