By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
The sincere form of flattery that is cinematic imitation, often derided as a form of plagiarism, can also make for moviemaking magic.
That’s exactly what happens with Super 8, JJ Abrams’ inspired homage to the movies of Steven Spielberg.
The result is a mainstream gem, a wonderfully entertaining helping of summer escapism: intriguing, scary, funny, and moving.
As a child, Abrams made movies with his Super 8 camera. As did Spielberg.
With Super 8, the two of them have teamed up — the former as a writer-director (for the first time), the latter as a producer — to use that background as a springboard for their latest movie project.
It’s a science fiction thriller set in the small steel town of Lillian, Ohio in 1979, focusing on a group of middle-school youngsters who are using the titular camera to make their own zombie movie in the hopes of entering it in an amateur film festival.
The budding director is Charles, played by newcomer Riley Griffiths. His makeup maven and assistant is his 12-year-old buddy, Joe, played by Joel Courtney — also a newcomer — still getting over the recent death of his mother during an accident at the steel mill where she worked and somewhat estranged from his grieving widower father, the town’s deputy sheriff, played by Kyle Chandler of TV’s “Friday Night Lights.”
The boys’ leading lady is Alice, played by Elle Fanning, with whom Joel is clearly smitten even though his father disapproves of him having anything to do with her for reasons that will later be revealed.
One night, while they are filming near the railroad tracks, they are witness to an accident in which a boxcar on a freight train carrying cargo from Nevada’s “Area 51” derails after colliding with a truck.
While fire rages, something emerges from the train and escapes the wreckage. And that something does not appear to be human.
Immediately, but not coincidentally, lots goes missing in Lillian: engines, appliances, dogs, and, yes, people.
Hey, just what’s going on here?
While the authorities, military and otherwise, are deciding how to treat the sensitive truth about exactly what has occurred and just how much the public wants and needs to know, perhaps the moviemaking kids have caught something on their processed film that no one else is aware of.
Director Abrams (Star Trek, Mission: Impossible III) — who also created TV’s “Lost” and produced the creature feature Cloverfield — mixes horror, humor, and heart with wonder and nostalgia while blending story and action in a way that allows both thrusts to fully emerge.
Yes, this is a tingly monster movie, but it’s also an effective coming-of-age drama about the kids, recalling such films as Stand By Me and Goonies.
In addition, the portrait of puppy love between Courtney and Fanning is captured as skillfully as you’ve ever seen it presented and performed on the movie screen.
And there are plenty of laughs as well in this casually but effectively funny thriller.
Abrams — who, like Spielberg, certainly knows just how to direct young actors — gets fine, natural performances from his tween and teen leads, especially Courtney and Fanning, while playing with our genre expectations in ways that surprise and delight us.
And producer Spielberg, whose life certainly provided much of the inspiration for the project, is never far from mind because we are reminded so often of his early, high-profile, influential films, especially E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Come to think of it, Jaws too.
(Oh, by the way, make sure to stick around through the end credits…)
So we’ll shoot 3½ stars out of 4 for a delicious genre shake. Super 8 is, in a word, super.