Super 8 isn’t quite up to the level of Steven Spielberg’s finest early-80s work — but it’s surprisingly close, a sci-fi movie with heart that is thrillingly directed by Spielberg worshipper J.J. Abrams. Is Abrams playing God? As Steve Martin put it, when his mad-scientist character was accused of this in The Man with Two Brains, “Somebody has to!” In a Hollywood that’s becoming increasingly reliant on special effects at the expense of story — of wowing you without bothering to make you care — somebody has to remind us how the master used to do it.
The influence of Spielberg, who has blessed this project by taking a producer credit on it, is all over every frame of this delightful combination sci-fi extravaganza and childhood fable about five teen friends who are making a zombie movie in the late 1970s in an Ohio steel town with a then-current Super 8 camera.
The movie immediately gets you in the throat without a word being spoken, as we learn of the death of a mom and steel worker who was crushed to death in an accident, leaving her cop husband (Kyle Chandler, who has proven himself one of TV’s all-time best dads in Friday Night Lights) and a stricken but resilient son named Joe (a very impressive Joel Courteney). At the mom’s wake, the adults are full of dread but even here the kids show imagination, spark, and ambition, neatly displaying how youth leads the way.
Joe’s chubby friend Charles (Riley Griffiths) is determined to carry on directing a monster movie for which he has managed to nab the school’s ruling queen bee Alice (Elle Fanning, who like her older sister Dakota is a natural) as lead actress. Joe, who is serving as a makeup and special effects man on the project, is awed by the coup of securing Alice, who is so cool she even agrees to drive the kids to their shooting locations even though she is too young to have a license. But her father Mr. Dainard (Ron Eldard) is a drunk, a dismal loner and a community pariah. Joe’s father warns him to have nothing to do with Mr. Dainard or his daughter.
Still, the kids carry on with their Super 8 movie, the filming of which brings them to a close encounter of a very weird kind. A train wreck deliberately caused by the kids’ most brilliant teacher (Glynn Turman) releases hundreds of strange metal blocks the size of Rubik’s Cubes — and draws the interest of the Air Force, which immediately takes over security in the area and starts behaving suspiciously, even trying to trace the tire tracks of a car they learn was in the area at the same time as the crash. This car is the one that Alice and the five younger kids had used.