Movie-making magic: In the spirit of 'ET,' 'Super 8' takes us back in time
“Super 8’’ has been written and directed by J.J. Abrams, the wunderkind behind “Lost,’’ “Alias,’’ and the 2009 big-screen “Star Trek,’’ but its DNA comes straight from the original boy genius himself. Set in 1979, the movie’s a honey-colored evocation of Steven Spielberg’s most iconic period, when the director looked at small-town America from the deck of a visiting spaceship. It’s like finding a vintage Schwinn Stingray at a high-end bike store: From the no-name cast of resourceful kids to the flawed, good-hearted grown-ups to the extraterrestrial going bump in the night, “Super 8’’ is a fond and unexpected throwback to the days of “E.T.’’ and “Close Encounters.’’ You sense Spielberg agreed to produce the film just to make sure they’d get everything right.
And they have, for the most part. The new movie struggles at times to balance the innocence of its inspirations with the demolition-derby demands of the modern movie marketplace — you almost feel Spielberg wrestling with Michael Bay for possession of Abrams’s soul — but in the end the humor and the humanity outweigh the big-bang-boom. And the movie’s tip of the hat to the joys of making monster movies with your friends grounds it firmly in the personal.
Yes, boys and girls, this is how you did it before cellphones and YouTube came along. You borrowed dad’s home-movie camera, rounded up your pals, and biked off to a vacant lot. There was always one bossy kid who ended up directing. In real life that was Spielberg himself, but here it’s the husky, imperious Charles (Riley Griffiths). The guy who liked to blow things up became your special-effects guru; Ryan Lee as Cary seems very much the second coming of Jackie Earle Haley.
You had your leading man (Gabriel Basso as the self-serious Martin) and your extra (Zach Mills as the nerdy Preston). If you were lucky, you had a girl (Elle Fanning as Alice, from the wrong side of the tracks and much crushed upon by the others). And you had the one kid who did a little bit of everything and who is this movie’s hero — both its Elliot and its Roy Neary. Joey Lamb (Joel Courtney) has just lost his mother and he doesn’t know how to talk to his deputy sheriff dad (Kyle Chandler), but he knows the girl of his dreams when he sees her and he turns out to have a cool head in a crisis.
This comes in handy. Sneaking out to film a nighttime scene for Charles’s Super 8mm zombie epic, the Goonies — I mean the heroes — witness a train crash and the escape of something big and slithery into the woods. If this were really 1979, the crash would take up half a minute of screen time, but the new rules of multiplex engagement mean we get about five solid minutes of thermonuclear explosion and falling shrapnel. Rather too miraculously, no one is scratched — not even Alice’s dad’s sweet yellow Buick Skylark.
Whatever the critter is — and Abrams plays hide-and-seek with it much as he did in “Cloverfield’’ — it’s followed by the US Air Force and a nasty Colonel (Noah Emmerich), who ultimately quarantines the town and provides “Super 8’’ with one-note villainy. The movie already has its hands full trying to juggle Joey’s relationship with Alice, his estrangement from his dad, her estrangement from her dad (Ron Eldard), Charles’s attempts to keep his movie on track, and the growing civic disorder as citizens and electrical appliances disappear in bursts of violent clamor.
For all that, the filmmaking scenes are the heart of the movie. Charles is beside himself now that he has actual soldiers and a demolished train to put in the background of his shots, and the romance between Joey and Alice rises from their shared work ethic — they may be kids, but they’re also pros. Courtney is especially good as an ordinary boy forced to discover his extraordinariness, and is it any coincidence that he bears a passing resemblance to Henry Thomas of “E.T.’’ (or that Chandler, as his dad, is a ringer for a young Robert Forster)? Certainly not — “Super 8’’ wears its calculation on its frayed double-knit sleeve.
There’s a thin line, though, between honoring what came before you and replicating it, and “Super 8’’ occasionally wobbles over that line into predictability. Nor is Abrams quite sure what to make of his monster. Is it friend or foe? Can a movie split the difference and still hold on to our sympathies? Toward the end, you feel the filmmaking cutting corners, rushing past story points and shortchanging characters to get to the finale, which itself lacks the pop immensity of a movie like “Close Encounters’’ even as it imitates it. “Super 8’’ is a curious thing indeed: A good movie that makes you want to go home and re-watch a great one.