Going beyond the sheer, family-friendly popcorn blockbuster value of Super 8, it may be fruitful to view the new movie by J.J. Abrams as a cultural pastiche and history lesson, a layer cake of retro. Here, we have a drive-in-theater suited, post-nuclear age monster yarn fueled by military-industrial complex angst that takes the ’50s sensibility into the landscape of the mid ’70s (hence the title, and the pre-digital-gadgetry hairdos). As for the influence of the present-day cinematic state of the art, can you say CGI?
Not for nothing does the Steven Spielberg-as-producer imprimatur loom large over this bring-the-kids summer charmer, which shares sentimental kinship to kindly sci-fi/monster movies like Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. In this film, as in those and as in Frankenstein, the monster’s malevolence is greatly exaggerated, and the question of who is more humane and who is more monstrous buzzes in the background of the story.
As a film-within-film conceit, the central plot device involves ’70s Ohio teens working on a humble super-8 zombie-murder movie, with that endearing cinema-obsessive geekiness we can imagine young Spielberg and Abrams being guilty of as kids. Of course, the plots thicken up real big when they happen on a train crash, an Air Force secret, and the alien/monster stuff of drive-in movie legend.
This is big- and small-screen yeoman Abrams’s first “original” film, after doing duty in the Mission Impossible and Star Trek franchises, and he shows a strong, sure hand. Big and sometimes shock-tactical things happen in the movie, but sensitivity to details and intimate emotions with his characters keeps the thing from becoming unruly and dully lumbering, the way action-ized blockbusters can. We do care about the puppy love developing between protagonist Joel Courtney and Elle Fanning, not to mention the underlying sweetness and frustration of the presumably horrific beast wreaking havoc in small-town America.
But we also crave the action-packing and craftsmanship of Hollywood doing what it does well, on occasion, with its big budgets and feel-good mandate. As blockbusters with heart go, this one is a keeper.