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Geek kids in small town America uncover alien life in writer-director J.J. Abrams’ sincere summer pic, writes Todd McCarthy.
Like an old airplane (or spacecraft) jerry-rigged from scrap pieces and made air-worthy 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 but with producer Steven Spielberg conspicuously on board as navigator to provide sage advice, this science fiction adventure centered on film geek kids in smalltown 1979 America is something Spielberg can easily be imagined having 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 may be Rustbelt, U.S.A. instead of a blandly anonymous western state community, but the ingredients are pure Spielberg from the first 10-15 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 entire 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 fearsome 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, over-archingly, an abiding love of sci-fi and monster lore as absorbed and, in this case, replicated by movie-crazy kids.
This latter element 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 huge 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 special 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 indisputably 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) for some reason 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 to anyone about what they saw, but they do pick up one odd little white cube from among crates of them being transported on the train. 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 through the wreck and there's something vaguely visible moving around in the darkness that looks very creepy.
"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 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. When the sheriff vanishes after one of several instances of violent nocturnal disturbances, Jackson takes charge of the local force and finds himself at increasing odds with the military. Enterprisingly, the kids sneak into Dr. Woodward's office and find secret government footage revealing that an alien landed in the U.S. in 1958, the repercussions of which are just now being felt.
Through all the big action of the final half, including the town's forced evacuation, further disruptions by the alien, the kids' continued efforts to film their movie and their ultimate escape from encarceration to try to save the day, Abrams still finds time to delineate some of the characters' emotional struggles, notably between Joe and his cop dad, who begins to realize his boy may not be completely out to lunch after all; between Alice and Louis, who's revealed to be more a 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 own 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, say 12-14-year-olds than to those of kids, say, 16 and up, and only time will tell if this limits the audience somewhat. 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, as well as passing thoughts of her older sister Dakota's role in Spielberg's War of the Worlds, 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.
Opens: June 10 (Paramount)
Production Companies: Amblin Entertainment, Bad Robot
Cast: Kyle Chandler, Elle Fanning, Joel Courtney, Gabriel Basso, Noah Emmerich, Ron Eldard, Riley Griffiths, Ryan Lee, Zach Mills, Glynn Turman
Director-screenwriter: J.J. Abrams
Producers: Steven Spielberg, J.J. Abrams, Bryan Burk
Executive Producer: Guy Riedel
Director of photography: Larry Fong
Production designer: Martin Whist
Costume designer: Ha Nguyen
Editor: Maryann Brandon, Mary Jo Markey
Music: Michael Giacchino
Visual Effects Supervisors: Kim Libreri, Dennis Murren, Russell Earl
111 minutes, PG-13 rating
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