Just as Terrence Malick's "The Tree of Life" evoked the same essence of Stanley Kubrick, J.J. Abrams' "Super 8" is a love letter to the work of Steven Spielberg, who coincidentally acted as a producer on the film. "Super 8" shares the thrills of "Jaws," humor of "The Goonies," sentimentality of "E.T.," and sense of mystery in "Close Encounters." "Super 8" might not be as perfect of a blockbuster as Spielberg's earliest works. Of course if I were to compare every summer movie to "E.T." and "Close Encounters," this season would be a yearly letdown. While the comparisons to Spielberg are hard to ignore, "Super 8" still stands out as a wonderful and nostalgic picture and one of the year's most exciting entertainments.
Sharing an uncanny resemblance to Elliot in "E.T.," Joel Courtney plays Joe, a young boy who lost his mother in a factory accident. His father, a sheriff's deputy played by Kyle Chandler, is distant and gives him no comfort. The only people Joe has to confide in are his friends that spend most of their time making zombie movies. While shooting their movie one night, the friends witness a train crash and an unidentified creature escapes from the accident. The Air Force shows up, dogs disappear, the electricity goes out, and since a majority of the adults in the small town are idiots, it's up to the preteens to investigate.
The high point of "Super 8" is its young cast of newcomers. I already mentioned Courtney, who demonstrates great range as the compelling protagonist of Joe. Riley Griffiths is terrific as Joe's best friend, Charles, who is the epitome of every aspiring 13-year-old filmmaker. Also quite good here is Ryan Lee as a future pyromaniac and Gabriel Basso as the most nerdy of the friends, constantly vomiting at the site of danger. Then you have the charming Elle Fanning as Alice Dainard, the girl that Joe hopelessly desires. This ensemble doesn't quite reach "Goonies" territory. But they certainly come close.
Another strong attribute of the film is Abrams' direction. Abrams has demonstrated his knack to produce first-rate action in movies like "Mission Impossible III" and "Star Trek." "Super 8" features numerous terrific action set pieces, most notably that train crash which is right up there with the unforgettable plane wreck in the pilot of "Lost." Action is easy to do. But effective and well-done action is rare in modern movies.
There's a lot that goes right in "Super 8." What often brings the film to a halt though is Chandler's cold father figure. Absent fathers are a theme in Spielberg-related films. But here we get too much of the Chandler character, who seems one-note and clichéd. Every time he's on screen I wished that movie would get back to those pluck young kids.
Finally, there's the ending of the film, which feels overly rushed and a tad corny. A particular line of dialog between Joe and his father will have many rolling their eyes. I don't want to give too much away about the alien itself. But try to picture the monster from "Cloverfield" meets the giant spider in Steven King's "It."
Despite its relentless father-son subplot and some cheesy dialog toward the end, "Super 8" is still a terrific film about summer romance, friendship, loss, and letting go. For some the film will draw too heavily on the lines of Spielberg's pictures from the '70s and '80s. But for less supercilious audiences, the film will prove to be a great time.