After successfully piloting two big-screen franchises, Mission: Impossible
and Star Trek
, toward creative revivification in recent years, writer/director J.J. Abrams in his new film Super 8
pays tribute to the early work of Steven Spielberg and that filmmaker’s production company Amblin Entertainment (which also produced Super 8
). While cast in the mold of late-Seventies/early Eighties films such as , E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, Gremlins, and The Goonies, Super 8 has a sense of being the most personal of all Abrams’ projects (which include his creation of the popular TV shows Felicity, Alias, Lost, and Fringe). Super 8 is a monster movie that’s a throwback to the kind in which the creature is a misunderstood interloper whose full unveiling is kept under wraps for as long as possible. While Super 8’s core protagonists are a group of late-tweeners/early teenagers, which also fits into the Amblin template, these particular kids are spending their summer vacation making a zombie movie for submission to a film festival. Super 8 is set in 1979, which adds to the movie’s retro feel and provides its title, since the film the kids are shooting is on Super 8 stock. (A plot point pointedly reminds today’s instant-gratification, digital auteurs that it used to take several days to process your film at a lab before you could view your dailies.) The depiction of the kids, their film work, and their friendships are the strongest part of Super 8. Abrams shifts the action from Spielberg’s suburban Americana to the Ohio rustbelt but maintains that wide-eyed sense of wonder so vital to his mentor’s films. Newcomer Joel Courtney is perfectly cast as Joe Lamb, the zombie movie’s special-effects expert who has recently lost his mother in a fatal steel-mill accident and gets his first kiss from Alice Dainard (Fanning) as he applies her zombie makeup. In fact, all the kids are great, with particular standout work by Fanning, Griffiths as the bossy director who hired Alice because of his crush on her, and Lee as the group’s pyrotechnically inclined scene-stealer. Like Spielberg, one of Abrams’ great strengths is his knack for perfect casting. While out filming one night at the abandoned railroad tracks, the kids witness a spectacular crash caused by a truck stalled in the path of an oncoming train. It’s the beginning of the destruction of their town by the mysterious cargo on the train and the further alarm created by the ominous military men who swoop in and try to harness the disaster. Joe’s father, Jackson Lamb (Chandler of Friday Night Lights), is the town’s deputy sheriff and is stymied in his efforts to solve the strange occurrences and sudden disappearances of various townspeople (and all the community’s dogs). Of course, the disaster also has a way of reuniting discordant families (much as it did for Fanning’s sister, Dakota, and Tom Cruise in Spielberg’s War of the Worlds), although Abrams’ emotional resolutions seem pat and hollow. Ultimately, it’s the period and character details in Super 8 that provide the grist for its winning formula, rather than its emotional arc and monster jolts.