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.
The way the quick-thinking kids always stay one step ahead of the slightly malevolent and cement-footed adults is pure Spielberg, as are the many fluid tracking shots and crane shots that seem especially gorgeous after a decade of shaky-cam movies. But what’s best about Super 8 is how the kids seem like you remember you and your friends being — they aren’t sentimentalized, they aren’t superheroes, they aren’t an excuse for pandering to the youth in the audience. They’re just smart, resourceful, and slightly obsessed. One kid, for instance, is a budding demolitions expert who is always dying to show you his backpack full of illicit cherry bombs and M-80s.
If anything, the movie is even better with character development than it is with the sci-fi story that the kids gradually piece together and which eventually takes over the final act, with a series of thundering, effects-laden action scenes. These are rousing enough, but they are similar to the climaxes of other movies (the closing minutes virtually restage a famous finale from the same period that Super 8 is set in).
The characters and relationships, on the other hand, are completely charming — the way Alice and Joe get to know each other, the way Alice’s father is slowly revealed to be more than the burned-out loser he appears to be, and especially the way the kids’ superficially silly zombie movie unveils the early stages of real talent being developed. Charles, the director, keeps muttering, “production values, production values” — which he can’t afford but which he is correct in believing will add heft to his movie. Moreover, Charles knows something a lot of famous Hollywood directors don’t — that it’s the quiet love scenes that make the action scenes pop. This is a lot of wisdom for a 12-year-old, a knowledge of craft that is absent from most of the Pirates and Transformers movies. What makes Super 8 so exciting, then, is that it gives us a glimpse of how creativity is born and how it is developed — with determination, hard work, and a touch of obsession.