Like an old plane (or spacecraft) made airworthy again, Super 8 has been patched together with 30-year-old spare parts to provide an enjoyable ride of its own. With writer-director J.J. Abrams capably manning the controls and producer Steven Spielberg conspicuously on board as navigator, this science fiction adventure revolving around film-geek kids in small-town 1979 America is something Spielberg could easily have made himself around the same time and is, indeed, unthinkable without him. Engaging on its own terms and sharply tuned in to the wavelength of pubescent boys and girls, this Paramount release looks set for a profitable flight as a widely appealing general-audience summer attraction.
No one can say there's anything new here. The specific setting might be Rust Belt, U.S.A., instead of a blandly anonymous Western state, but the ingredients are pure Spielberg from the first 10 to 15 years of his career: fractured average American households, often with one parent missing, where kids must fend for themselves and are more aware of something big happening around them than are the distracted, small-minded adults; a threatening alien interloper whose presence, once made public, will throw authorities and the populace into a panic and communities into flight; kids who can save the day by being open to their imaginations; nerds, not brawny macho types, as heroes; a monster whose power is made clear but whose physical characteristics are only gradually revealed; flawed parents whose eyes are finally opened to the virtues of their children; swooping crane shots and dollies-in for close-ups; nighttime scenes punctuated by bright lights shining at the camera; and, overarchingly, an abiding love of sci-fi and monster lore as absorbed and, in this case, replicated by movie-crazy kids.
This latter aspect adds one new element to the formula, injecting into the mix a layer of Blow-Up and Blow Out, that of an explosive incident accidentally caught on film that provides the key to a cover-up. The little band of Lillian, Ohio, middle school filmmakers is led by the chubby, intensely driven Charles (Riley Griffiths), with Joe (Joel Courtney) as his makeup and effects expert, a crucial position given that they're making a zombie movie to submit to a teen film festival. To their mutual delight and surprise, the school blond beauty, Alice (Elle Fanning), has agreed to co-star in their opus, and her pale skin provides a receptive canvas for undead facial adornments.
The pushy Charles comes from a large, boisterous family, but Joe and Alice have troubled homes; as a prologue informs, Joe's mother was recently killed in a factory accident, a tragedy to which Joe's cop father, Jackson (Kyle Chandler), connects Alice's drunken, derelict father, Louis (Ron Eldard). Slipping out at midnight for a clandestine shoot, the trio and their filmmaking cohorts head for an outlying old train station to create a key scene with Alice and leading man Preston (Zach Mills). When he notices a train unexpectedly approaching, the excitable Charles yells, "Production value!" and sets the camera to include it, little knowing that a pickup truck will pull onto the tracks and be deliberately positioned to create a collision that will far exceed the spectacle of the train wreck in Cecil B. DeMille's The Greatest Show on Earth, Abrams and Spielberg's acknowledged inspiration for the sequence.
Unconvincingly, the driver who caused the crash, school science teacher Dr. Woodward (Glynn Turman), survives to warn the kids not to say anything about what they saw. In a quaint touch that will be especially amusing to those old enough to remember the pre-video days of delayed gratification, the kids must wait three days for their film to be developed. But when they finally see their footage, they realize the camera remained running throughout the wreck and there's something creepy moving around in the darkness.
"That was mint!" as Charles repeatedly says in his own curious precursor to "awesome," and the battle lines are drawn. Air Force personnel, led by the ruthless Nelec (Noah Emmerich), immediately move in to exercise damage control and prevent the public from learning, for example, that the train was transporting unknown material from the legendary Area 51.
Through all the big action of the final half, including the town's forced evacuation, disruptions by the alien, the kids' continued efforts to film their movie and their attempt to save the day, Abrams still finds time to delineate some of the characters' emotional struggles -- notably between Joe and his dad, who begins to realize his boy might not be completely out to lunch after all; between Alice and Louis, who's revealed to be a more complex character than initially indicated; and even between Charles and Joe about their competitive feelings for Alice, the latter a nicely realistic touch of a sort not commonly found in Spielberg's work.
Despite these fractious relationships and an entirely unnecessary f-bomb lobbed in at one point, Super 8 remains a somewhat softer, more benign experience than the mostly harsher and harder sci-fi and fantasy fare produced today; it's more attuned to the sensibilities of 12- to 14-year-olds than to those of kids 16 and up, and only time will tell if this limits the audience. It's entirely a throwback, to be sure, but also a sincere evocation of emotions and aspirations many kids experience at that transitional stage and admirable in its devotion to the dawning of creative impulses and bubbling imaginations.
Although the impressive Fanning's presence carries with it some contemporary associations, Super 8 has been cast in a solid but unglamorous manner befitting the common-folk setting. Technically, it looks almost identical to a Spielberg film from three decades ago. End credits are worth sticking around for as they reveal the final full version of the Super 8 movie the kids endured so many distractions to make.
Release date Friday, June 10 (Paramount)
Cast Kyle Chandler, Elle Fanning, Joel Courtney, Noah Emmerich, Ron Eldard, Riley Griffiths
Director-screenwriter J.J. Abrams
Producers Steven Spielberg, J.J. Abrams, Bryan Burk
Executive producer Guy Riedel
Rated PG-13, 111 minutes