SUPER 8 (Dir. J.J. Abrams, 2011)
Having grown up during the golden age of Spielberg (i.e. the late '70s-early '80s) I was immediately in tune with the vibe Abrams was going for here. It helps that mood and tone that SUPER 8 is set in a small mid-western town in 1979, and centers around a group of pre-teen kids.
Joel Courtney, who's never acted in a movie before, stars as a shy model building C-student whose mother is killed in an accident at her factory workplace. His grieving father (Kyle Chandler) is the town's deputy, and for obvious reasons things are strained between father and son.
Courtney's pushy friend (Riley Griffith) is making a super 8 zombie movie, and with a small crew of kids, including fire-works crazy Ryan Lee, klutzy Zach Mills, and geeky Gabriel Basso, they sneak out late one night to work on it.
Griffith invites Elle Fanning to play the lead character's wife, and because she has a car, to the excitement of Courtney who has a crush on her.
In the middle of filming on the platform of an old rickety train station, a freight train comes nosily down the tracks. Griffiths wants to get it on film citing "production values," but Courtney sees a truck racing towards the train, and then there's a ginormous crash, completely derailing the engine and all the compartments in a series of fiery explosions. The kids escape unharmed, well, one claims he was "scraped", and recognize the driver of the truck as one of their school teachers.
They frantically leave the area when a bunch of shadowy men with flashlights descend on the wreckage.
That's the set-up, and it's a great one. From there a entertainingly tangled narrative involving a military cover-up, a budding romance between Courtney and Fanning, and, yes, a mysterious alien creature that was in one of the train's compartments unfolds.
A wide-eyed sense of wonder coupled with cynicism about government misinformation effectively evokes the atmosphere of CLOSE ENCOUNTERS and E.T., which is no surprise as Spielberg produced, and the film is a collaboration of Amblin Entertainment and Bad Robot Productions.
Like with his STAR TREK reboot, Abrams shows that he has a great grip on face-paced storytelling. As the movie lays out all its alien cards, the proceedings get a bit predictable, but the compelling craft on display never falters.
Abrams also gets the Spielbergian sentimentality down. No other recent sci-fi CGI blockbuster lately has had this much heart.
It's a promising debut for Courtney, who endearingly captures the awe in this tale of how kids can outsmart the authorities, figure out a complex conspiracy, and help an alien get back home.
As for the rest of the cast - Fanning brings poise to a standard damsel in distress part, the set of smart- alecky kid are perfectly cast, and Chandler infuses his troubled cop character with intensity.
However, Noah Emmerich as a U.S. Army representative is standard one note villain. He still kind of fits here because it's a common theme in this genre that the real bad guys are the government powers that be, not the aliens. Sure, there's a lot of killing at the claws of the creature, but that's because of military mistreatment and wrongful imprisonment, you see?
With a nice blend of nostalgia, emotional pull, and incredible special effects, SUPER 8 is as touching as it is a lot of fun.
Any be sure to stay for the end credits. I'm not going to tell you why, but trust me - you won't want to miss it.