Director: J.J. Abrams
Starring: Joel Courtney, Elle Fanning, Riley Griffiths, Kyle Chandler, Ron Eldard
Summer movies tend to have a particularly short shelf life; they open big and then (and often immediately after opening weekend) fade away in favour of the next big thing. A lot of the time this fate is utterly deserved, but occasionally a movie comes along that merits staying power and could possibly continue to foster an audience throughout the summer and into the fall, the kind of movie that you might actually return to in later years. It's appropriate that Super 8 should be one of those movies, given that it's a throwback to late 70s/early 80s Spielberg movies, the kind made at a time before movies earned 60% of their box office on opening weekend.
Super 8 is set during the summer of 1979 and centres on Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney), an adolescent who has recently lost his mother and has a distant and unstable relationship with his father, the local deputy sheriff (Kyle Chandler). Joe escapes the difficulty at home by helping his friend, Charles (Riley Griffiths), make a zombie movie for a local film festival, a project which becomes even more exciting after Charles talks Alice Dainard (Elle Fanning) into participating as the female lead. One night the film crew - which includes Martin (Gabriel Basso), Cary (Ryan Lee), and Preston (Zach Mills) - sneak out in the hope of getting footage of a passing train so that Charles can finally gain the production values that are so sadly lacking from his film. The plan is a success until the train goes off the track and their small town is plunged into an intense military cover-up.
The kids know that the train was purposely derailed by middle school science teacher Dr. Woodward (Glynn Turman) and it quickly becomes apparent that something escaped during the crash. The military is, of course, tight-lipped about what was being transported on the train and how they're going to contain it, but strange things are happenning in town and people are disappearing - including Alice. While the town is put under lockdown, Joe and his friends rush to save Alice and discover the truth before it's too late.
Writer/director J.J. Abrams does an excellent job at evoking not only the time and place of the setting, but also the look and feel of vintage Spielberg. He captures here the sense of wonder that was inherent in films like Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. and, like that second film, he's crafted a story from the point-of-view of children that can speak to an adult audience. That being said, however, Super 8 doesn't achieve this quite as effortlessly as Spielberg did and there are things about it that feel just a little bit forced, particularly with respect to the relationships between the characters. It is perhaps a minor flaw, but in a movie that relies as much on character as plot, it does somewhat diminish the impact of the film's resolution.
Abrams spends most of Super 8 suggesting its creature rather than showing it, a strategy that is almost always effective and certainly works here. Abrams gradually reveals the creature through a series of scenes, each one showing us just a little bit more, ensuring that the audience is teased but not frustrated. His skill is further revealed through his handling of the action scenes, all of which are expertly executed. I doubt that there will be many action scenes this year that will top the train crash sequence that kicks this story into high gear. All in all, while I think Super 8 falls just inches short of greatness, I do think that it's a refreshingly well-crafted (though, unless I'm missing something, there does seem to be a fairly big plot hole concerning how the gang is able to simply drive off the army base) and engaging movie, the kind summer movie seasons could use more of.