MovieMantz Review: ‘Super 8’

“A Close Encounter of the ‘Super’ Kind”

“Super 8”
Joel Courtney, Elle Fanning
Directed by J.J. Abrams

Since “Super 8” takes place in 1979, it seems only appropriate to describe the third feature directed by J.J. Abrams as the cinematic equivalent of a mix tape – a very good mix tape that’s made up of classics from the late 70s and early 80s like “Jaws,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial” and “The Goonies,” as well as newer hits like 2005’s “War of the Worlds.”

As fate would have it, those movies were either produced or directed (or both) by Steven Spielberg, who also serves as a producer here. And since “Super 8” was fully intended to be a nostalgic love letter to the filmmaking icon, whose movies were a huge influence on Abrams (and, well, just about everyone else who came of age during that era), you couldn’t ask for a better seal of approval than that.

But like any mix tape, “Super 8” is filled with great moments that don’t always work great together. At its best, the film is everything you could ask for from a summer movie: it’s suspenseful, exciting and entertaining, it’s charming, moving and funny, the screenplay (by Abrams) is well-written and the performances – especially from the younger cast members – are terrific.

But when it comes to replicating the magic touch that defined those earlier films, “Super 8” comes up short. There’s no question that Abrams tried hard to hit all the right notes in an effort to capture the sublime beauty that turned Spielberg’s movies into timeless classics. But by also paying tribute to the cheesy B-movies of the 50s, the thrilling aspects don’t always blend well with the elegant coming-of-age moments, resulting in a film that feels slightly disjointed and uneven.

Seeing as how both Abrams and Spielberg cut their teeth by making movies with Super 8 film cameras during their youth, it seems somehow fitting that the young friends who live in the small blue collar town of Lillian, Ohio, set out to do the very same thing – in this case, a zombie movie along the lines of George A. Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead.”

But while shooting their film, they witness a devastating train crash that they soon discover was not an accident. Something was in one of the train compartments – something that’s most definitely not of this earth, and now it’s free, terrorizing the small town. What it wants is a mystery, but while trying to solve it, these kids will soon change the way they see their families, their futures and each other.

Spielberg fans are bound to have a blast picking out the nods to his movies. Like “E.T.,” the story is told from a kid’s point of view, and like “Close Encounters,” the government tries to cover up the incident with a bogus disaster in an effort to evacuate the town. “Jaws” also comes to mind, since we never really get a good look at the alien, as does “War of the Worlds” when all hell breaks loose.

Another Spielberg touchstone is that the two main protagonists hail from broken homes: Joe (Joel Courtney), whose mother was killed in a local factory accident, and Alice (Elle Fanning), whose father abuses her. This is another correlation to Elliott’s family dynamic in “E.T.,” but since two kids are dealing with it here, the pace slows down, and the emotional sentiments feel more contrived.

But the heart of the movie still shines through, thanks to the solid performances. Joel Courtney makes a strong impact with Elle Fanning (“Somewhere”), Dakota’s younger sister who is growing up fast. And despite his slightly underwritten role, Kyle Chandler (TV’s “Friday Night Lights”) also makes his mark as Joe’s distant father, but newcomer Riley Griffiths practically steals the movie as Charles, the hilarious filmmaker whose Super 8 camera catches the alien’s escape.

Despite its minor flaws, “Super 8” is still a terrific movie that’s on par with Abrams’ last two directorial efforts: 2006’s “Mission: Impossible 3” (the best of that bunch) and 2009’s vibrant “Star Trek” reboot. And since Abrams also has an impressive TV legacy that includes “Felicity,” “Alias” and “Lost,” there’s a good chance that Abrams will get his own greatest hits mix tape somewhere down the line.

Verdict: SEE IT!

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