It's getting harder and harder to make movies like Super 8. Without the marketing muscle of a comic book superhero or a million dollar mug to slap on the poster, director J.J. Abrams gave the Hollywood bean counters dangerously little to count on. Even after Star Trek proved Abrams could direct the hell out of a summer blockbuster, the budget allocated for his pet follow-up is as diminutive as its young cast.
There is one megaton name Abrams drops on the Super 8 one-sheet: Steven Spielberg. But then, even his involvement means little when stinkers like Transformers and Eagle Eye regularly reappropriate his reputation for their own nefarious purposes. Fortunately, Abrams' connection to Spielberg is more personal.
Super 8 is a tribute to the early accomplishments of the famous filmmaker, and to his ilk who fell under the Amblin Entertainment banner in the 1980s. Abrams draws thirstily from their well, and precedes his film with that iconic E.T. over-the-moon title card. His contribution isn't quite the missing masterpiece many might have hoped, but it is a fun sci-fi throwback with modern flourishes and plenty of heart. Imagine that.
Like Richard Donner's Goonies, the pint-sized protagonists of Super 8 are kids. Not the angsty teenage set that Twilight has cornered, but kids. Cute, flawed, and endearing, the cast and casting director deserves a lot of credit. Two of the youngest stars make their debut here, including Joel Courtney as Joe, a boy dealing with the untimely death of his mother, and Riley Griffiths as Charles —Joe's (token big boned) friend with directorial aspirations.
Hence the title, a love of filmmaking permeates Super 8 — not just in Abrams' confident, informed direction, but among his characters as well. Set in the summer of '79, our heroes sneak out by night to shoot scenes for Charles' schlocky zombie detective short, The Case. Anyone who's messed around with a camcorder as a kid or endured an amateur film festival will immediately recognize the beats. Armed with approximations of professional equipment that would put my friends and I and our Mickey Mouse operation to shame, these characters are seriously creative. But then, being written by J.J. Abrams doesn't hurt.
It's no real spoiler that Super 8 is an alien flick, and Charles' little project takes a dramatic turn when he records something he was never meant to see. A loosed extraterrestrial menace stirs up trouble in the close-knit community, but with the subsequent government invasion, the first act's micro-focus begins to blur. Spielberg's own E.T. benefited from an exclusively adolescent perspective. By comparison, Super 8 wanders.
Though we're never parted from Joe long, the unfolding alien drama rarely meshes with the human story. Creature characterization should be married to his coming-of-age, but instead, exposition usually amounts to an isolated attack on a tertiary character. The scenes play well with suspense and camera trickery, but in hindsight, the plot is pretty much paused for action.
Super 8 is still a summer movie to aspire to. Like Inception, it defiantly forgoes franchising in favor of an as-yet untapped creative reserve. Of course, Abrams draws from the same wellspring that Spielberg, Donner, and Dante drank from, but even when he borrows, he reminds us why so many films made for triple the price aren't half as enjoyable — heart. Call Abrams overambitious, but his is a story of love, reconciliation, and friendship. How exactly do you quantify that?