When you think back on Amblin Entertainment's (Steven Spielberg's production studio) indomitable reign over the summer movies of the '80s and early '90s, it plays like the ultimate hit parade for adolescent wish fulfillment. E.T., Back to the Future, Gremlins, Jurassic Park, and The Goonies were formative movies for teenage audiences and, more specifically, the fanboys who now rule Ain't It Cool's comment threads.
Of course, there were the Amblin duds as well. Who remembers (no less geeks out over) Batteries Not Included, Harry and the Hendersons or Innerspace?
Super 8, J.J. Abrams' unabashed cinematic love letter to those Spielbergian days of yesteryear, falls somewhere between those two sets of films, delivering an intimate and well-directed summer movie that's more an entertaining nostalgia trip than a satisfying dramatic journey.
Say what you will about Spielberg's blatant emotional button-pushing, his stories were masterfully told, and he had an uncanny way of exploring our dreams and vulnerabilities. Abrams, on the other hand, composes his movie like an Amblin tribute band, capturing the look and feel of those beloved blockbusters but never quite finding the heart.
It's 1979 (the year Abrams was 13), and Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) is a quiet but likable Ohio teen struggling with a distant police deputy dad (Friday Night Lights' Kyle Chandler) and the recent death of his mother. Luckily, he has his best friend, the movie-obsessed Charles (Riley Griffiths), who's making a Super 8 zombie film with his junior high cronies.
Sneaking out to shoot a scene at the local train station, the kids watch as an Air Force freight train rushes past them then crashes into a pick-up truck racing down the tracks. This leads to a spectacular derailing and the revelation that the town's junior high science teacher was behind the wheel. In record time the military rolls in and a ruthless Colonel Nelec (Noah Emmerich) unconvincingly claims that there's nothing special about the accident. This is hard for Joe and his cop pop to swallow as neighborhood dogs go missing, car engines are stolen, and mysterious brown outs leave the Ohio town without power. Something escaped from that train and the kids are determined to get to the bottom of it... as soon as they finish their zombie flick.
Like Jaws, Abrams keeps the monster (which could be called Son of Cloverfield) off screen for as long as possible, hinting at its size and shape but mostly generating tension from his quiet-then-explosively-loud scare scenes. Smartly, he puts the focus on Joe and Alice (Elle Fanning), the girl he has a crush on, creating small, human moments that win our affection. Their bond and the easy camaraderie of Joe's personable friends is established with crisply sketched scenes and Abrams does a wonderful job of capturing the longing, fear, and excitement that young teens experience.
But it's his script that his movie can't overcome. Despite the kids' encounters with the fantastical, Super 8 never achieves a sense of awe or wonder, the feeling that they (and we) are seeing something for the very first time. Spielberg was a maestro at inviting his audience to gape along with his characters at the marvels before them, whether it was spaceships or dinosaurs. Instead, Abrams breathlessly ticks off his plot points and father-child themes, stumbling badly as it enters its chaotic third act. Bouncing from mawkish melodrama to hollow spectacle and back again, the final showdown with the monster is both derivative and underwhelming. Worse, it spells out the creature's motivations with on-the-nose exposition rather than dramatizing its situation.
In the end, Super 8 can't quite decide which Amblin movie it wants to be and so it tries to be them all. It's a coming-of-age movie, a first romance film, a killer alien flick, and a misunderstood monster movie. Inspiration becomes imitation, and Abrams, who certainly knows how to entertain, delivers a heard-it-before medley rather than a true blue geek classic.