When does theft become homage? When the person you’re ripping off is a collaborator. J.J. Abrams apparently knows this and, with Steven Spielberg on board as executive producer, his Super 8 has gone from Spielberg-theft to Spielbergesque.
Actually, of the all the films that have tried to do Spielberg—Goonies and Gremlins come to mind—Super 8 may do it best. It captures a lot of the uniquely clear-eyed suburban nostalgia that made Spielberg films like E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind so magical.
It’s the summer of 1979 and, in a working class Ohio town, Joel (Joe Lamb) has just lost his mother to a horrible accident at the plant. His cop father (Kyle Chandler) is ill-equipped to deal with a grieving son (or his own grief for that matter) but luckily Joel has an enterprising friend (Riley Griffiths) who wants to make a zombie film on his Super 8 camera. That’s just the distraction that Joel, who is handy with makeup and props, needs—all the more so when the cool and pretty Alice (Elle Fanning) is cast as the leading lady.
Super 8 gets all the character stuff right (which is the stuff that I care about the most, frankly). Where it fumbles, a bit, is in the alien/monster/big-bad-thing department. You see, one night, while shooting at an abandoned train station, the kids witness a mysterious train crash and a subsequent military coverup. Soon, freaky things start happening in the town—people and dogs go missing, engines are ripped from cars, things blow up spontaneously. What on earth (or out of earth) is going on?
I almost wish that Abrams hadn’t felt the pressure to release a “summer blockbuster” and had simply made a film about those kids making their movie. That’s clearly where his heart lies. (And do be sure to stay through the credits to see the finished product. It’s hilarious.)
The action elements of the film are half-baked at best. It's hard to go into details without getting spoilery. Suffice it to say, mysteries are raised and discarded, and the climactic turning point was embarrassingly treacly.
Still, I hope audiences find Super 8. The film has humor and charm to burn. No, it’s not quite Spielberg. But then again, if Abrams had been able to strike that perfect balance between pathos and rip-roaring adventure, he might have actually surpassed his master. And who really wants to see that?