Super 8 is the movie of the summer, the movie of many summers going back to the '70s. It's a creature feature, a first-love romance and a movie buff's movie about movie buffs trying to become moviemakers.
J.J. Abrams, with Steven Spielberg producing, has made one of those jaw-dropping out-of-body summer entertainments that kids old enough to swear and see PG-13 films will remember on into adulthood. An homage to Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Jurassic Park and even The Goonies, Super 8 is Abrams' version of a Spielberg movie the way Spielberg used to make them.
In the winter of '79, we meet Joe (Joel Courtney), a middle school lad of about 13, on the worst day of his life. His mom has died, and he's sitting, in his funeral suit, on a swing set in the snow while friends and relatives talk about how hard this is going to be on him and his dad (Kyle Chandler), a sheriff's deputy.
The adults feel sorry for him. But his friends do what boys that age do. They wonder what his mother's crushed body looks like in the coffin. And Charles (Riley Griffiths) worries that Joe won't be able to do makeup, sound and whatever on his next super 8-millimeter motion picture.
Because that's what they'll be doing the next summer. Charles fancies himself the next Spielberg, and he has a zombie movie he wants to shoot and get into a film festival. One of the clever asides in Abrams' script is that what the director wants, the director gets, even though "he shouldn't always get his way."
They sneak out to film a poignant train-station farewell between the kid-actor hero and his kid-actress wife, and they realize that they've stumbled into a real leading lady. Alice (Elle Fanning, extraordinary) grew up poor, pretty and mysterious. When she does her first scene, the boys in the crew are in tears. She's a natural.
But before they even have that scene in the can, a passing train derails — a crash so over-the-top it almost defies the laws of physics — and a critter escapes from one of the freight cars. The kids skedaddle just as the military shows up.
Something is going on, someone is covering it up and soon the whole town is consumed by fear and paranoia. All the dogs flee, electronics of every stripe disappear, and the sheriff is snatched from a local convenience store. The night is full of weird noises, the sky full of helicopters and the town is filled with soldiers (Noah Emmerich is in charge) who don't tell anybody anything.
The kids? They know something. But they've been warned: "They will kill you. Do not speak of this or else you and your parents will die."
Abrams puts Walter Cronkite back on the TV and Three Mile Island back in the news, and he has a kid explain this new gadget — "the Walkman, it works like a stereo." He peppers the soundtrack with late-'70s pop (ELO, The Knack), and the dialogue is the smart-aleck kids' banter that the movies rarely manage.
This isn't a children's' movie. There's profanity and pot use and some pretty disturbing violence.
But Abrams, as he did with Star Trek, makes this a movie that never lets us forget that it's a movie. It's retro without being nostalgic, sentimental — Joe misses his mom and watches old home movies of her — romantic even, but with generous helpings of humor.
You will believe a Camaro can fly. But the effects, stunning though they are, never take over the story, which is about curious kids in jeopardy.
And what kids. Super 8 is peopled with a collection of standout performances by children. Even the boys and girls playing "types" deliver: Zach Mills is the gearhead cameraman, Ryan Lee is the short obnoxious blond with braces.
Kids don't play with their parents' Super 8 cameras anymore. They don't devour movies the way they used to, either. But with Super 8, Abrams offers a summer entertainment that appeals to the inner 13-year-old in us all, so much fun that it might even make real 13-year-olds put down their Nintendo DS's and discover what it means to lose themselves in a movie.