The J. J. Abrams sci-fi thriller Super 8 is a Steven Spielberg homage/rip-off produced by Spielberg himself. It would be easy to dismiss as 100 percent ersatz if it didn’t rekindle at least some of the old excitement—and if the magic of Spielberg’s older movies didn’t filter through, like light from a distant galaxy.
The film is called Super 8 because the principal characters—five pubescent Ohio boys of various shapes and a willowy blonde girl—are in the midst of shooting a ragtag zombie movie (it’s the seventies, pre–home video) at an empty, isolated railroad station when a pickup truck veers onto the tracks and derails an onrushing freight train. The injured driver, a high-school science teacher, tells them to run or they’ll be killed. The Air Force shows up hunting for something that looks to be very big and lethal. Walter Cronkite is on the TV talking about Three Mile Island, so it might involve nukes. Or it might not. As people and pets disappear and the grown-ups accomplish nothing, the kid protagonists strike out to solve the mystery—shooting the occasional zombie scene to take advantage of the “added production value” of all the hubbub.
The plot is a mishmash of various sci-fi and Spielberg tropes with a little bit o’ meta from the kids’ being filmmakers, but Abrams, who wrote the script, has enough storytelling savvy to keep you guessing from scene to scene—so much so that it seems criminal even to reveal the nature of the mystery. As he did with his Star Trek remake, Abrams grounds the film in family tragedy: The young hero, Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney), has just lost his mom after an industrial accident; his deputy-sheriff father (Kyle Chandler) is a non-presence; and the girl he has a crush on, Alice Dainard (Elle Fanning), has a drunken single dad who had something to do with Joe’s mother’s death. Absent mothers, impotent or cruel fathers: The world is one big dysfunctional family, with the military (led by Noah Emmerich) the baddest-ass dad of all. Joe and Alice fall in love while racing around trying to do what their parents wouldn’t or couldn’t—which includes making contact with an entity that has its own authority issues.
The adolescent protagonists’ repartee isn’t especially idiosyncratic or penetrating, but there’s something compelling about how unformed these kids are: You know they already look nothing like they did when the movie was shot. (Is it the result of seeing so many People anniversary spreads and episodes of Biography that we naturally envision them in their forties giving interviews about their new sobriety?) Courtney is likably non-actorish, while Fanning has good concentration and that familiar Fanning-family freaky grown-up white face and blue eyes (here slightly reddened, as if inflamed). If Abrams had given the chubby director kid (Riley Griffiths) some Spielbergian talent instead of (for easy laughs) Ed Wood–ish ineptitude, Super 8 might have added up to something more. Abrams could have shown the connection between domestic upheaval and a child’s burgeoning filmmaking talents.
At least Abrams makes you feel his enthusiasm. He would have been a week short of his 9th birthday on June 20, 1975, the opening day of Spielberg’s Jaws—the day movies changed forever—and in the throes of puberty by the time of Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. At 15, he and his friend Matt Reeves got the job of cutting together the Super 8 films Spielberg had made as a kid. Abrams has probably been fighting not to reproduce Spielberg’s signature moves since the day he picked up a camera. Now, with the blessing of the master, he can plagiarize with alacrity. He can track in on his youthful subjects from below, vividly bringing their emotions to the fore. He can shoot the horizon line and heavens to make us instantly aware of all the mysteries of the universe we’ve been forced to forget just to get on with our days. He can use a sudden silence to make us laugh out loud at the prospect of being jolted out of our seats. It’s sad to say, but in the midst of so many impersonal, FX-bloated franchises and tent poles, that might be enough.