Watching Super 8, you get a sense of how much writer-director J.J. Abrams loves the films of Steven Spielberg. He adores them so much, he’s made one (and even got Spielberg to serve as producer). The setting is small-town suburbia. The year is 1979, when Abrams was a teenager shooting Super-8 films with his friends, like the movie’s protagonists. The kids, a mix of first timers and professional actors (Elle Fanning, Joel Courtney, Gabriel Basso, Riley Griffiths, Ryan Lee and Zach Mills), are all terrific. They have the noisy, loud energy of friends who have known each other for a long time. They would be perfect for a remake of The Goonies — which, in a way, Super 8 is.
The movie opens with the accidental death of the mother of Joe, one of the teens who is then left to live alone with his distant deputy-sheriff dad (a wasted Kyle Chandler). Keeping the death off screen is the first of the movie’s mistakes: Since we never meet Joe’s mom, we can’t mourn along with him and his dad or understand their pain, something that will factor into the plot in a major way.
Four months later, the kids are in the midst of filming a scene for their cheapo horror movie when their camera accidentally captures the spectacular derailing of a cargo train transporting … what? That is the question Super 8 drags out for two-thirds of its running time. Abrams teases us with lots of strange goings-on: An attack on a gasoline station by something monstrous we don’t get to see clearly; the sudden appearance of U.S. Army troops who order everyone to evacuate immediately; a high-school professor who knows something about what the train was carrying — something dangerous. Abrams is doing the same thing Spielberg did in Jaws: Building anticipation by keeping the shark off screen as long as possible. But in that movie, we knew the monster was a shark. In Super 8, the delay feels like a carrot dangled to keep the audience watching, and the wait for the big reveal grows tiresome.
Fortunately, the kids are personable enough to hold your attention — the budding romance between Fanning and Courtney is particularly touching — and Abrams keeps the movie amusing by adding fringe touches, such as the pothead clerk at the store where the boys develop their film or a quick, hilarious shot of someone in the background who throws up from sheer panic. But by the time Super 8 finally pulls back the curtain to explain what’s going on, it has become derivative, sentimental and borderline silly (the final scene is flat-out awful). Abrams obviously adores Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, but Super 8 isn’t able to meld the fantastical with the ordinary the way those movies did. You never feel this is happening to real people.
I wish Abrams had done away with the genre stuff and just concentrated on telling a story about kids who aspire to be filmmakers: The actors are talented enough to carry the movie, but they fade into the background once things grow dire, and the special effects take over. There’s no sense of wonder or awe. There are no moments when you feel you’re seeing something you’ve never seen before, as you felt in the films that inspired Abrams. Super 8 is a loving, heartfelt but hollow pastiche. It was intended as a from-the-heart love letter to moviemaking — you can sense Abrams’ intentions in every frame — but instead it ends up as something that rolled off the assembly line.
Cast: Kyle Chandler, Elle Fanning, Joel Courtney, Gabriel Basso, Noah Emmerich, Ron Eldard, Riley Griffiths, Ryan Lee, Zach Mills.
Writer-director: J.J. Abrams.
Producers: Steven Spielberg, J.J. Abrams, Bryan Burk.
A Paramount Pictures release. Running time: 102 minutes. Vulgar language, violence, brief gore, some scary and intense sequences.