With Joel Courtney, Elle Fanning, Ron Eldard and Kyle Chandler; 112 minutes; Rated PG-13 (for intense sequences of sci-fi action and violence, language and some drug use); Written and directed by J.J. Abrams.
Let’s not confuse things here. Nostalgia (and capitalizing on it) does not make something – like a period of time, a place, or in this case, a movie – automatically good. It is a selective filter we blindly employ that overvalues our formative years, prevents us from thinking critically and fosters generational rifts. For every childhood popcorn chestnut that holds for a viewer happy memories and also coincidentally by design follows the rules of good storytelling, there are ten flaw-riddled gimmicky flukes that (for whatever reason) scored well enough with audiences to chart and stay out of the flippant footnotes of Halliwell’s and Maltin’s bibles. These are movies that often can, after viewing them as an adult, be filed under that category “I Liked That?” Wunderkind “Lost” creator J.J. Abrams returns to his wonder years and delivers the sci-fi adventure SUPER 8 while managing to avoid all these pitfalls, his fantastical tale a wickedly satisfying E-Ticket thrill ride in the old-school Spielbergian sense of the word.
It is 1979, and in the (fictional) steel town of Lillian, Ohio (the actual steel town of Weirton, West Virginia), 12-year-old Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) is mourning the loss of his mother, as is his father, Jackson (Kyle Chandler), who is also Lillian’s deputy. Joe channels his grief into a Super-8 film production that he is making with his friends, and also finds love for the first time with Alice Dainard (Elle Fanning), whose father Joe’s father does not like very much at all. Meanwhile, an Air Force transport train (presumably en route from the shuttered Area 51) goes off its rails while the kids are shooting a scene one night at the nearby train station. They inadvertently capture footage of the train’s mysterious cargo, which disappears into the night before the men in black arrive. Then, the real weirdness begins to unfold when all the town’s dogs start turning up in towns miles away, the power goes out and citizens start disappearing altogether.
While Abrams pays steady tribute to producer and on-set guru Steven Spielberg by multiple tips-of-the-hat to the director’s “Close Encounters Of The Third Kind” (1978) and “E.T.” (1982), as well as the Spielberg-produced “The Goonies” (1986), it is not the kind of empty, fanboy glute-smooching that alienates non-geeks. Abrams, who also produced and directed the hit tribute/franchise reboot “Star Trek” (2009), sets us up from the go to like and identify with the folks of Lillian, and also reminds us, through Joe’s and his friends’ devotion to making their mini-epic, that everyone is a fan of something. It is the kind of non-disparaging sure-handedness that helped make similar tributes like “Free Enterprise,” “Galaxy Quest” and “Paul” work so well.
The cast, made up of mostly unknowns, helps Abrams sell his vision. The entire story rides on the shoulders of first-timer Courtney – this movie’s proxy Elliott/Mikey– who does a fine job as the pubescent man-of-action. Fanning (“Somewhere”) is eerily good, again letting her prodigious chops belie her scant 13 years. The googly-eyed interplay between she and Courtney is lump-in-the-throat touching, and the beef nursed by Chandler (TV’s “Friday Night Lights”) and Eldard (“Roadie”) carries weight.
Not only does Abrams so confidently lay this rich offering at the feet of Spielberg and his millions of fans, but he also makes the film as Spielberg may have in the late 1970’s, before he became a Serious Filmmaker. The lush Technicolor, the layered mystery and deliberate pacing until the big reveal – a la Spielberg’s “Jaws” (which was out of need in that the shark prop was non-operational for most of that film’s shooting) – the faux-John Williams score (by Abrams staple Michael Giacchino) – are all flourishes that take us into the action for that essential suspension of disbelief. For nearly two hours, we find satisfaction while finding a home in Lillian’s Goondocks, riding our bikes through the sky across its bright full moon and building a giant mountain out of dirt on our dining room table while muttering, “This means something!”•••