No Sherman, we haven’t set the way back machine to 1979. It’s just JJ Abrams delivering a supercool slice of nostalgia: the exact, precise sort of movie his producer (some cat named Spielberg) employed to cement his reputation as king of the cinematic cage. Super 8 plays like the kissing cousin of Close Encounters and E.T.; if you showed the three to someone with absolutely no knowledge of cinema, he’d be hard-pressed to say which one came out thirty years after the other two.
Abrams’ genius lies in finding that early Spielberg vibe without losing his own auteurial voice in the process. He stumbles occasionally only in the smallest of ways – a few historical incongruities, some narrative bumps, points where he riffs too heavily on his predecessor – and recovers with the passionate devotion of a true movie lover. His recreation of an earlier era of filmmaking works brilliantly, both as a blast from the past and a solid piece of entertainment in its own right.
During that magical summer of 1979, a small group of kids get together to make a zombie movie on a Super 8 camera. Their make-up and effects expert, Joe (Joel Courtney), lost his mother a few months earlier after she filled in for the alcoholic father of the movie’s star, Alice (Elle Fanning). Both youngsters still smart from the wound: Joe seeking closure with his distant father (Kyle Chandler), Alice struggling with guilt and revulsion towards her own dad. That darkness is matched by the first stirrings of puppy love between them, and the sense that they might be able to heal each other if only they knew what to say.
Abrams elicits brave and winning performances out of the both of them, as well as nailing the more carefree elements of childhood without blinking. Joe’s cheerfully squabbling friends don’t quite grasp what he’s going through, but stay loyal and resolute regardless. Abrams captures the right mixture of middle-school smarm and best-buddy hijinks, seen through rose-colored lenses, but never soppy or overplayed.
Oh, and did I mention the Air Force conspiracy, the mysterious disappearances, and the Plot Complications That Cannot Be Named Lest I Spill the Beans a Week Early? The coming-of-age elements intermingle with another piece of Spielbergiana: a government train derails right in front of the kids while they’re shooting and unleashes something into the nearby town. The local dogs do the smart thing and take a powder, while various authority figures try to parse the nature of the threat and ominous Air Force officers arrive with Geiger counters and big guns. Revealing the details about the danger would be telling, but the kids soon find themselves up to their neck in trouble, since their movie camera captures key details about the train wreck… and may hold a solution if those government nitwits don’t throw everything into a cocked hat first.
The two halves of Super 8 – effects-heavy thriller and Wonder Years-style drama – threaten to fly apart at any time. But like his producer, Abrams possesses an instinctive knowledge of how to make them work together. The CGI never eclipses the humanity, but neither do the kids’ antics overwhelm the what-the-hell-came-out-of-that-boxcar plot. Abrams’ storytelling skills keep everything in its proper proportions: a feat that would have confounded lesser artists to no end.
He garnishes it all with technical flourishes designed to deliberately invoke the Spielberg look. Michael Giacchino’s score riffs marvelously on John Williams, while Larry Fong’s cinematography apes the telltale backlighting of Janusz Kaminski and the like. Besides conjuring the past wholecloth, it also reminds us how much Spielberg has changed as a director and – without judging either his early work or his more recent films – how long it’s been since we saw something like this from him. To do all of that without losing sight of your own unique voice is a rare feat indeed. Abrams pulls it off the same way he nailed the Star Trek reboot: respectful of his influences without feeling bound to them. That not only makes for a terrifically entertaining picture, but it may quietly place him in the ranks of mainstream filmmaking’s elite.