In this era of remakes and reboots, writer-director J.J. Abrams is here to introduce a third option: the throwback. Though ostensibly an original work, his new film, Super 8, is meticulously designed to appear as otherwise. Its intent, which it makes no effort to hide, is to mine our nostalgia for the early oeuvre of Steven Spielberg, to invoke our affection for films like E.T., Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and even Jaws. Should Mr. Spielberg be concerned? Hardly: He's complicit in the scheme. The presence of his name atop the poster, and his production company, Amblin, in the opening credits doesn't just bestow credibility; it embeds the association in our memory, making the bridge between what is and what was that much shorter.
Super 8 is set in 1979 - a creative decision which affords a measure of built-in nostalgia and allows the filmmakers to sidestep modern narrative nuisances like cell phones and Google - in the fictional working class community of Lillian, Ohio. Our hero, our embodiment of those prized (and I believe copyrighted) Spielbergian virtues of youthful innocence and wonder and unbounded curiosity, is Joe Lamb (wonderful newcomer Joel Courtney), a polite, earnest boy made all the more sympathetic by the recent death of his mother, a steelworker, in a workplace accident. Joe's home life is rather dreary - his father, Deputy Jack Lamb (Kyle Chandler), is too immersed in grief to be much of a parent - so he jumps at the chance to spend the summer with his mates, shooting a DIY zombie movie.
They gather one night at a local train station to shoot a key scene, for which they've pulled off the minor coup of convincing a pretty classmate, Alice (Elle Fanning), to play the female lead. But the camera has scarcely started to roll when a passing train collides head-on with a pickup truck., resulting in perhaps the most over-the-top train crash I've ever seen on film, an interminable sequence of ever-escalating vehicular carnage that would make the Final Destination folks gasp.
The driver of the truck that caused the crash is revealed to be the kids' science teacher, Dr. Woodward (Glynn Turman). Bloodied but still breathing, he delivers them an ominous warning: "Do not speak of this. They will kill you." We learn who "they" are soon enough, when hordes of soldiers, members of a top-secret branch of the Air Force, descend upon the crash site to comb the wreckage.
Shortly thereafter, the town is beset by strange, unexplained phenomena. Engines disappear from cars. Dogs flee en masse. Worst of all, townsfolk are vanishing, abductees of a creature glimpsed only in shadow and yet utterly terrifying nonetheless. We need not see the monster to know its fearsomeness: All of the scare scenes are expertly choreographed by Abrams, the score, shot and sound design fine-tuned for maximum menace.
Chaos and panic spread. Believing the mysterious events and the train crash to be related, Joe and his pals decide to mount their own investigation. With each successive clue they gather, the implications of the conspiracy become clearer, and they are soon on the verge of a revelation that will change their lives - and indeed, the world - forever.
Super 8's genre spread is staggering. The film is equal parts sci-fi epic, conspiracy thriller, creature feature, coming-of-age drama, and teen comedy. (You can even add "zombie flick" if you include the film-within-a-film.) The mish-mash isn't so much a problem in the first half of the film - Abrams is such a gifted storyteller that he handles massive tone shifts with almost laughable ease - but as the story gathers steam, it has more and more difficulty reconciling its disparate elements. More than once in the third act does Super 8 teeter on the edge of Shyamalanism, only to pull back at the last moment.
The film is surprisingly affecting, but never in a cynical or manipulative way. (This is a minor miracle.) Abrams' secret weapon in this regard - and easily the film's best feature - is his cast of child actors, who are universally superb. Their interactions feel genuine, their comic rapport natural and unforced. Fanning in particular is wondrous. At this point, calling her a "child actor" feels somehow belittling, as her talent easily outpaces that of the majority of her adult counterparts.
Their efforts are largely betrayed by an ending that feels false. A hasty and belated attempt is made to turn the creature into a sympathetic figure, followed by a denouement drenched in artificial sentiment, with smiles and hugs and assurances, both stated and implied, that everything is going to be all right from now on. It's an ending that Spielberg might have been able to pull off, but Abrams is no Spielberg. Not yet.
Hollywood.com rated this film 3 1/2 stars.