I do not worship at the altar of J.J. Abrams. His talent and ambition, which have earned him a loyal and hardcore fan base, are hard to dismiss (he's a writer, director, producer, actor, and even composes, for God's sake), but I've just never been able to latch on to most of his previous work, save for the movie Cloverfield (which he produced) and TV's Lost (which he co-created), and I never made it past that show's first season after growing weary of too many nonsensical story lines. Other notable TV projects he's created or co-created are Alias, Felicity, the currently running Fringe, and he's a producer on Person Of Interest, also currently airing. Film-wise, other than Cloverfield, he directed the underwhelming third instalment in the Mission: Impossible franchise and the recent Star Trek reboot, which was supposed to be entertaining enough to appeal even to non-Trekkies, such as myself. Frankly, it bored me to tears. Super 8, which Abrams wrote and directed, finds him teaming up with producer Steven Spielberg, who actually hired a teenage Abrams to restore and organize the collection of Super 8 films Spielberg shot as a youth, based on the 8 mm filmmaking skills that Abrams himself had demonstrated and somehow gotten the film mogul to take notice of.
Super 8's plot: in the summer of 1979, a group of six kids who reside in a fictional Ohio steel town are shooting a zombie-themed amateur movie and find themselves inserted into a whirlwind of events that begins with a violent train derailment at one of their filming locations. Other key elements in Super 8's story include an extraterrestrial, kids from unhappy homes, budding teen romance, and a heavy-handed military force. Sound familiar? Aside from the producing credit, Spielberg's fingerprints and influence are all over this movie, which is unmistakably a tip of the hat to some of the director's late 70's and early 80's work, like Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, E.T., Gremlins, and The Goonies (as well as non-Spielberg youth-oriented movies from that era, such as Stand By Me). I felt somewhat conflicted after watching this film as I asked myself the question: at what point does a movie cross the line from being an homage to a shameless ripoff? Super 8 would seem to have its feet straddling both territories, but the ride is still fun.
The strongest aspect of the movie are the excellent performances delivered by just about the entire cast, especially the central character of Joe, as played by 14-year-old newcomer Joel Courtney. Another standout is Elle Fanning as Alice, the only female member in the group of five boys and the object of Joe's affection. The last thing I'd seen her in was Soffia Coppola's dreadfully dull Somewhere, where she acquitted herself fairly well with the thin material she had to draw from. Courtney and Fanning have great chemistry and are the emotional anchor in a film that has loads of heart, which is Super 8's second best quality. Much of the source of that emotion comes from the plot point that finds Joe having his mother die in an industrial accident, leaving his father (a solid Kyle Chandler from television's Friday Night Lights) a broken shell and at a loss with how to connect with his son in their time of grief. The movie's opening scene is one of its best: it simply shows a worker changing the "Days since last accident:" sign at the factory where Joe's mom worked from "784" back to "1", but it's beautifully shot and has a restrained tastefulness to it (aided by Michael Giacchino's subdued score) that stood out to me more than any other scene in a film that uses a moderate amount of CGI, most notably during that spectacular train derailment scene.
Just as Abrams can please on a visual level, though, he can also make his fair share of missteps. There are a ludicrous number of shots in this movie that have a lens flare effect, which apparently is one of Abrams' calling cards. I wasn't aware of this fact until after I had watched the movie and was wondering if something was wrong with my TV. Some other negatives: Abrams plays a little too coy for my liking in revealing the unremarkable alien presence, which feels like a retread of the approach taken with the monster in Cloverfield, which, in turn, is the approach Spielberg took with the shark in Jaws. It was a lot fresher back in 1975. Also, some of the plot details at the end of the movie that work out just a little too conveniently feel lazily written, which is a criticism I would also aim at a few lines of uninspired dialogue that nod to the oncoming technical revolution (a gas station clerk rocking a clunky new Sony Walkman elicits a "it's a slippery slope" comment from a curious customer).
Having come of age during the "golden era" of kid's adventure movies that Super 8 pays tribute to, I had higher expectations that the movie can't quite fulfill. Still, you could find a lot worse ways to spend a couple of your leisure hours than taking in this enjoyable lark.