Writer-director J.J. Abrams' adventure yarn Super 8 is set in 1979, a year that's nestled between the release dates of Steven Spielberg's first two blockbusters, 1975's Jaws and 1977's Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and his subsequent two blockbusters, 1981's Raiders of the Lost Ark and 1982's E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial. (Spielberg's underrated 1941, which was released in 1979, was a flop.) The selection of this year makes sense, since the picture itself is surrounded on all sides by the influence — nay, the very spirit — of Mr. Spielberg (who, incidentally, is involved as a co-producer). But while imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, it's not always the best way to make a movie. Super 8 is a thoroughly entertaining popcorn flick, but one does get the sense of Abrams sweating up a storm in an effort to produce the sort of guileless matinee magic that Spielberg conveyed effortlessly.
Certainly, it's easy to imagine this plotline being employed in an era that witnessed the likes of Gremlins and The Goonies (both executive-produced by Spielberg), and it's equally easy to picture the leading roles filled by such then-youthful actors as Chris Makepeace, Wil Wheaton and either or both of the Coreys. With the exception of Elle Fanning, the other kids here are largely unknowns, but all are perfectly cast in their respective parts. Newcomer Joel Courtney handles the starring role of Joe Lamb, who agrees to help his best friend Charles (fellow newbie Riley Griffiths) shoot a zombie movie for an amateur filmmaking competition in their home state of Ohio. Along with their gangly pals (Ryan Lee, Gabriel Basso and Zach Mills), as well as their reluctant classmate Alice (Fanning, a revelation here), the crew proceeds to begin filming at a rural railroad stop in the middle of the night, only to have said shoot interrupted when a train carrying a mysterious cargo derails (an explosive scene that rates comparison to the spectacular train crash in The Fugitive). The military soon comes a-callin', followed shortly by a series of mysterious disappearances around town.
E.T.'s suburban setting, Close Encounters' sense of government secrecy, Jaws' initially unseen menace, Raiders' climactic cliffhanger-style thrills — all of these elements are dutifully channeled by Abrams, who takes the classic Spielberg model and outfits it with a new engine. The effects are more polished, the Dolby sound is ratcheted up, and what was once spanking new (Walkmans, The Knack's "My Sharona") is now employed in the film as misty nostalgia. As such, the picture might expertly manage the tightrope act of appearing equally appealing to kids (who will appreciate the monster mayhem) and their parents (who will appreciate the nods to the pop culture of their own youth). Yet while the former demographic won't be cognizant of the limitations of the movie's slavish devotion to the past, the latter audience might indeed sense the lack of those note-perfect tiny moments that made Spielberg unlike any other director of his generation. Think back to, for example, the scenes around Elliott's household in E.T., or Sheriff Brody's interactions with the townspeople in Jaws — sequences rendered even more special by the director's instinctive ability to include recognizable bits of realistic behavior or backdrops. Abrams' film, for all its strengths, can't manage such a feat. Still, it gets the job done on its own terms. If this publication rated movies on a 10-number system rather than a 4-star scale, Super 8 would score a solid 7.