A friend of mine used to have a saying: “Two teenagers saw it first.” It was a handy little catch phrase to describe the alien-beings-come-to Earth flicks which were rife during my long ago childhood. With “Super 8,” writer/director J.J. Abrams revisits the era and the genre, adding a number of plot wrinkles to the formula and layering on the quiet humor conspicuously lacking in the oldies. (This—along with the cheesy special effects—may be why we laugh at them today.) Under the supervision of and clearly inspired by Steven Spielberg, Abrams gives us an “E.T.” who is all growed up and significantly scarier than the original, coming up on its 30th birthday.
The teenagers in this case number six, and they are making a movie as a summer project in their small Ohio town. The writer/director, Charlie (Riley Griffiths), plans to enter it in a Cleveland film contest that fall (1979), so he gathers his middle school friends and starts his Super 8 camera rolling. While filming a leave-taking scene at the local train station, they are “lucky” enough to witness (and inadvertently record) a full scale, honest-to-God train wreck. (Abrams, like Charlie, delights in the spectacle, the kind that he likely filmed himself in his youth, using model train sets.) He sends the footage off to be developed, fretfully waiting out the three day lag.
In the interim, mysterious and unsettling occurrences take place in the peaceful burg of Lillian, OH. First, the military appear in force and warn off the citizenry from the wreckage site; then the town’s dogs all run off; finally, people start disappearing. One of them is the sheriff, leaving his deputy, Jack Lamb (Kyle Chandler) to deal with the rising chaos around him. A widower, Jack tries to get his son, Joe (Joel Courtney), to quit running around with Charlie and his movie-making chums and do something “normal,” like baseball camp. But Joe, partly because of the presence of the alluring Alice (Elle Fanning) in the female lead, defies his dad and sneaks off to take charge of “special effects and makeup,” two of the “production values” which Charley so desperately wants for his zombie flick.
That work, entitled “The Case,” does get made, against stupendous odds: stick around to watch it as the final credits roll on “Super 8.” Charlie’s little entry has some of the same themes as the adult-made movie that surrounds it: the redeeming value of love and family, the persistence of the dead via art’s enduring present, the importance of compassion in the face of hatred. Neither film whomps us over the head with its ideas; rather, they arise naturally—sometimes comically—from the entertainment unrolling before our eyes.
And “Super 8” is a visual treat. Abrams, best known for directing the TV series “Lost,” knows how to tweak our curiosity, feeding us just enough glimpses of the mysterious monster to pull us in. That being’s appearance, along with some bang-up battle scenes at the film’s climax, will satisfy adults and young people alike. The grown-ups will also enjoy the scene-setting, which meticulously recreates the late 1970s. Abrams, art director David Scott, cinematographer Larry Fong, and musical composer Michael Giacchino expertly combine their efforts, bringing to the screen the artifacts and the music of the time, as well as scoring some points on the differences in American culture now.
“Super 8” is rated “PG-13,” which seems a little loose to this child of the 50s. There’s plenty of gore and cinematic scary stuff. In any case, parents will want to come along to “guide” their offspring and, by the way, enjoy this well-made summer movie.