For better or worse, Super 8 might be something new in movies: a filmmaker overseeing an homage to himself.
Produced by Steven Spielberg and written and directed by J.J. Abrams (Lost, Star Trek), Super 8 is a naked tribute to a certain kind of late-'70s/early-'80s Spielberg movie — ones like E.T. and The Goonies (and, to a lesser extent, Close Encounters of the Third Kind) that tended to filter a child's experience of domestic anxiety through fantastical adventure stories.
These were movies that, whatever their sci-fi or fantasy premises, worked best in their feeling for middle-class, suburban/small-town, single-parent homes and the latchkey childhoods played out there: modest homes cluttered with cereal boxes, takeout pizza and soda bottles, worn furniture, worn toys, and televisions always on.
In Super 8, Abrams seeks to recreate this milieu so totally that rather than deal with the present — as the Spielberg antecedents did — he sets his film in 1979, underscoring the essential nostalgia of the project.
If E.T. was essentially a divorce film disguised as sci-fi, Super 8 subsumes a similar childhood trauma in a similar kind of genre flick — one that combines Spielbergian optimism with the town-under-siege feel of earlier Cold War monster movies.
After communicating a family tragedy in a concise, effective opening shot, Super 8 jumps forward four months, with pre-teen protagonist Joe (Joel Courtney) living alone with his father (Kyle Chandler), a deputy sheriff in this small steel-mill town of Lillian, Ohio.
While Dad wants to ship him to baseball camp, Joe is trying to spend his summer helping best friend Charles (Riley Griffiths) and other pals make a zombie movie using a Super 8 camera. And there's a new member of the boy's club in the form of Alice (Elle Fanning), who shows up driving her dad's car (she's too young to have a license) and is appreciated by the boys with a pre-sexual awe akin to the way teammates gazed upon Tatum O'Neal's Amanda Whurlitzer in The Bad News Bears.
Super 8 works really well in lots of ways: The kid's-making-movies aspect adds a second layer of Spielberg homage — to the man himself, who cut his filmmaking teeth the same way, rather than to his movies — but also fits beautifully as a mechanism for experiencing the wider story, which first emerges while the crew is filming a scene at the local train station and happens to witness a cataclysmic and mysterious accident.
While handed down from Spielberg, Super 8's domestic simulation is both assured and felt, helped along by both sharp period art direction and some fantastic acting from its young cast. Courtney makes for a relatable, engaging everykid. But the star here is Fanning, who was terrific in a more narrow, naturalistic role earlier this year in Sofia Coppola's Somewhere. In Super 8, Fanning gets to show more range: She's a kid having a tough time in a motherless home, a friend commiserating over another's loss, a girl who, poignantly, wants to be "one of the boys," not quite aware of her effect on her male friends. And, in the homemade film being shot amid the town chaos, she also gets to be a concerned wife, a windswept noirish beauty, and a flesh-eating zombie. She nails it all.
But while Super 8's debt to vintage Spielberg is interesting, it's also limiting in a way. (The biggest — only? — stylistic difference: Abrams' incorporation of period pop songs.) And it falters in the end. While Super 8 comes close to duplicating Spielberg's feel for the domestic, it's ultimately less successful with the fantastical.
The filmmakers and studio have made great pains to hide the story and final twist/revelation/whatever in Super 8, and, no fan of lengthy plot synopsis anyway, I'll play along. But Super 8 doesn't take you anywhere unexpected, and when it finally tries to make a clear linkage between its two storylines — familial and fantastical — it does so in a way that's clumsily literal.
In a weak first half of the year for big-budget and/or wide-release studio movies, Super 8 is one of the best — maybe the best so far. But it's unlikely ever to be adored the way it adores its own influences.