Film Review: Super 8

Kid moviemakers stumble across an alien in director J.J. Abrams' homage to Steven Spielberg's blockbusters.

Writer and director J.J. Abrams stakes his claim as heir apparent to Steven Spielberg with Super 8, a kids' sci-fi adventure that dutifully pushes all the right buttons, but without the magic that made films like E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial classics of their time. By no means a total loss, Super 8 will still have trouble connecting with a wide audience.

Set in the suburbs of a rust-belt Ohio town in 1979, the film focuses on the same dysfunctional families that were Spielberg's bread-and-butter back in the days of E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Abrams has an exceptionally talented cast of young actors, and he directs them with unexpected sensitivity. They are coarse, funny, needy, wary, and at all times believable, even when the plot forces them into implausible situations.

After the death of his mother, young Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) feels cut off from his father Jackson (Kyle Chandler), a deputy who has thrown himself into work. Joe finds comfort with his friend Charles (Riley Griffiths), an aspiring filmmaker who is shooting what he sees as an epic horror film about zombies overtaking the town.

Rightly or wrongly, Lamb blames Louis Dainard (Ron Eldard) for his wife's death, which makes Joe's attraction to Dainard's daughter Alice (an expert Elle Fanning), an actress in the zombie movie, another source of conflict between father and son. The deputy faces more demands in the aftermath of a freight-train crash. Puzzling disappearances and the arrival of federal troops put the town on edge. Through the curfews, quarantines and evacuations, Charles keeps plugging away at his movie.

The filmmaking scenes are the most enjoyable aspect of Super 8, with Abrams adroitly reducing big-budget Hollywood problems to kid level. Charles bullies and cajoles his friends into attempting impossible shots, throws his actors off by constantly revising his script, and even engages in the kind of romantic machinations that plague adult productions.

But Abrams has bigger fish to fry, including a marauding alien and a government conspiracy, played out with the sort of large-scale special effects and crowd scenes that are Spielberg trademarks. Abrams doesn't get the same payoffs from these scenes that his mentor did, either because the monster and conspiracy material are too derivative, or because the film's production values seem spotty. Larry Fong's cinematography is marred by a slavish retro design (like the lens flares used to greater effect in Close Encounters). The score by Michael Giacchino is utterly routine, as is the monster, a sort of overgrown E.T. crossed with H.R. Giger's Alien.

Even the use of Super 8 stock as the kids' medium of choice has its drawbacks. Because they can't see their footage until it's processed, the story drags out over several days instead of building up the tension and pacing a tighter storyline might have provided. Abrams manages to tie up all the plot strings, but the result is clunky and predictable, not streamlined and exciting like the Spielberg films of old.