“Production value!,” the tubby kid screams. He and his friends are shooting a scene at the train station, and he isn’t about to get another shot at having an honest-to-goodness train speed past and therefore lend instant credibility to this scrappy production.
By all accounts, J.J. Abrams was that tubby kid at some point. I doubt the man was ever that husky, but Abrams grew up making Super 8 movies with his friends, bonding over the craft of it all. In 1979, you couldn’t exactly add in a passing train later, or a crashing one for that matter. So when a train approaches Lillian, Ohio, under cover of darkness, Charles (Riley Griffiths) gets excited, and when that train derails all around him and his friends, they get scared.
Charles isn’t our protagonist, though; Joe (Joel Courtney) is. The son of a deputy and widower (Kyle Chandler), Joe takes more to monster makeup than Dad’s recommendation of summertime baseball camps, where their figurative distance might be replaced -- or reinforced -- by a literal one, and so he falls in with his friends: insistent Charles, pyro Cary (Ryan Lee), dork Martin (Gabriel Basso, channeling Martin Starr), and dweeb Preston (Zach Mills, channeling Eddie Deezen). New to the crew is Alice (Elle Fanning): she’s perfect to Joe, she’s ideal for playing the newly-added wife of Martin’s detective, and she can drive. It’s handy to have a getaway driver, even an underage one, when a railroad disaster occurs in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night. It makes it easier to evade authorities when they come looking for the culprit behind the crash and the cargo that may have escaped…
The thing is, J.J. Abrams adored the same Steven Spielberg classics that we all did, and if you’ve seen E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Jurassic Park and Jaws, then you have a rough idea of what’s in store. Abrams is Charles all grown up, still making films with his friends (which now happen to include Spielberg himself as producer) and with no shortage of production value in sight. As the writer-director does a pretty good impression of “the Beard,” composer Michael Giacchino does a very good impression of John Williams, while Larry Fong’s handsome cinematography is only compromised by Abrams’ distracting fondness for lens flares (but it’s the way S.S. used to do it; this also explains the occasional split-focus shot).
Naturally, Joe’s dad knows Alice’s dad (Ron Eldard) for all the wrong reasons, while that same sense of tragedy only brings the kids closer together. Courtney’s a newcomer, Fanning already a pro (and often a more natural screen presence than older sis Dakota); both are knock-outs here. The young ensemble as a whole exudes an earnest camaraderie in the face of aggressively applied slang and late-inning reveals. Even more, the screenplay is laden with emotional shortcuts and obviously important plot points. In fact, the inciting train crash is such a phony cacophony of close calls and ham-fisted exposition that by the time the second-half set pieces are doled out, they all prove more exciting for their lack of both digital abandon and narrative burden. The sheer topsy-turvy imagery of a suburban war zone here and a school bus/prison transport/makeshift tomb there speaks loud enough on its own.
The parallel investigations carried forth by father and son into the Air Force’s sudden interest in little Lillian, Ohio, bring about a perfectly heated confrontation (the man who can’t bring himself to cook dinner for his son becomes the sheriff who is powerless to help a scared population of 12,000) and a cheeky sense of circumstantial role-playing (both Joe and Dad find themselves reluctantly suited up as soldiers) as something literally digs away at the foundations of their community. Part of the problem is in Abrams approaching his creature with Jaws-like tact, playing hide-and-seek with it when early attacks occur. But in Jaws, we already knew what a shark was and what it would eventually look like; it was Spielberg’s Jurassic Park that made the monster(s) halfway in and thus gave suitable weight to the threat at hand. Abrams spends so long playing the tease that its sudden shift from elusive beast to misunderstood being feels like a last-minute misstep, an emotional appeal for an established menace that doesn’t tie itself as well into Joe’s personal arc as it would clearly like to.
Abrams’ Cloverfield cohort, Matt Reeves, already did a damn fine job remaking E.T. last year with his Let Me In. However, Abrams wanted to mimic more than just E.T., and the result is about as sturdy as that film was sure-handed. There is a lot to like about Super 8, but little that’s new. It’s comfort food whipped up well by a former fat kid; the recipe remains the same.