Once upon a time there was a whole host of movie directors working mad hard to become the next Steven Spielberg. And for the most part, that worked out well for us. Joe Dante (Gremlins), Chris Columbus (Adventures in Babysitting), and Richard Donner (Goonies) aped the master’s almost kitschy sense of wonder and offhand dialectic of terror and humor from a kid’s perspective. Thus 1980s family film going was made more joyous.
One of the triumphs of J.J. Abrams’ wonderful new film Super 8 is its insistence on seamlessly compressing all the movies listed above, while adding generous dollops from Spielberg’s works and life — the blowing up of a model train gag, for instance, comes straight from his biography. (Indeed, Spielburg even produced this film, making it a close encounter of the self-conscious kind.) Yet Super 8 isn’t cutesy clever; it moves from a touchingly sad incident to glowing UFO finale with rattling good narrative pace, gorgeous cinematography, and a cast of unknowns whose faces will stay with you long after the clever film-within-a-film credits stop rolling.
In fact, if there’s any problem here, it’s this blaze of exposition, beginning with an intimidating train wreck witnessed by a bunch of moviemaking kids and ending with the near apocalyptic siege of a picturesque little 1970s town, without many pauses for fluid character development or, surprisingly, much nerve-wracking suspense. (Despite run amok terror, the film is not all that frightening.) The conclusion may seem pat, a touch tacked on, as if Abrams wasn’t much interested in making sense or milking the awesomeness of his denouement — which is not very Spielberg.
But these criticisms are slight. Super 8 has tons of heart; it’s the kind of movie that has been sorely missed lately. It’s a popcorn palace epic that should please analyzing professors as well as fanboys and girls. If for nothing else, see it to enjoy the newbie actors: Joel Courtney as Joe, the emotional core of this sweet thrilling film, Riley Griffiths as the director’s humorous stand-in, and the relatively veteran Elle Fanning as the young woman who sets the whole adventure in moviemaking right on the road to Spielberg town.