It would be easy to malign J.J. Abrams's Super 8 as a shameless ripoff of Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T. and Jurassic Park — that is, if Abrams didn't rekindle at least some of the excitement of seeing those films way back when.
We didn't just consume Close Encounters and E.T. like so much disposable pop culture. We were dazzled by a new mode of storytelling, accessible to all and yet personal and pure, the product of one visionary dreamer.
But then came the Spielberg imitations, some produced by Spielberg's company, and his name became a dirty word. "Oh no, not more lame Spielberg kiddie mush ..." Even Spielberg finally got the message, and began to direct prestige movies.
Now he's co-produced Super 8, and because 25 years have elapsed, we can savor it without having nightmarish flashbacks to The Goonies. And though Super 8 isn't in the same league as its models, it still hits home the way all the impersonal franchise pictures out there don't.
It's called Super 8 because it's set in the '70s, pre-home video. Its adolescent characters are using the titular film technology to shoot a ragtag zombie flick at an isolated Ohio railroad station when the kid director spots a train heading their way. He realizes he can exploit it by rushing the shot, a goodbye scene between a detective and his wife. Then young Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) sees a pickup truck veering onto the tracks, heading straight for the onrushing train.
The ensuing crash is amazing — the explosions go on and on, and mammoth pieces of metal crash down at decibel levels no '80s movie could reach. The pickup-truck driver, miraculously alive, tells the kids to run or be killed. The Air Force shows up hunting something that looks to be big and lethal, and might or might not involve nukes. People and pets disappear.
And there I'll stop; Abrams has the storytelling savvy to keep you guessing from scene to scene, so it's criminal even to reveal the nature of the mystery.
I can tell you the theme. Joe lost his mom in an industrial accident; his deputy father's a non-presence; and the girl he has a crush on, Elle Fanning's Alice, has a drunken single dad who had something to do with Joe's mother's death. So you have absent mothers and impotent or cruel fathers, and the Air Force officers turn out to be the cruelest patriarchal authorities of all. Joe and Alice and their pals race around doing what their parents won't or can't — solving the mystery and finally making contact with an entity that has its own authority issues.
The kids' repartee isn't particularly witty, but Courtney is likably unaffected, and Fanning, younger sister of Dakota, has that familiar freaky grown-up pale face and blue eyes. But Abrams misses a huge opportunity with the chubby director of the zombie movie. For easy laughs, the kid is inept in the Ed Wood mode — whereas if he had the talent of, say, a young Spielberg, we might have seen a connection between the emotional upheaval of childhood and a child's burgeoning filmmaking skills.
At least Abrams makes you feel his enthusiasm. He's of the age to have been influenced by Jaws and Close Encounters, and my guess is he 's been fighting not to reproduce Spielberg's signature moves since he picked up a camera. Now, with the blessing of the master, he can plagiarize with alacrity. He can track in on his youthful subjects from below, vividly bringing their emotions to the fore. He can use sudden silence to make us laugh out loud at the prospect of being jolted out of our seats. He can film the starry heavens to make us instantly aware of all the mysteries of the universe we force ourselves to forget just to get on with our days.
In Super 8, the magic of those older movies filters through like light from a distant star.