Spoiler Level: Perfectly safe.
It's fitting that the heroes of Super 8 are aspiring young filmmakers. Written and directed by J.J. Abrams, Super 8 takes place in 1979, when Abrams himself would have been about the same age as his protagonists here. I don't know if little J.J. and his friends ran around making zero-budget movies with an 8mm camera, but I know Super 8's co-producer Steven Spielberg did—twenty years earlier—and he grew up to make films like Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, which no doubt inspired the young J.J. Abrams.
Now Abrams and Spielberg have collaborated on the delightful Super 8, which is both another entry in, and a fabulous tribute to, the long, unbroken legacy of big summer movies. Super 8 is several homages in one: it plays (quite deliberately, and quite effectively) like a long-lost Spielberg film from the late seventies or early eighties, but it is also a throwback to the pictures of Spielberg's childhood, which was the golden age of alien invasion and monster movies like The Blob, The Thing from Another World, and The Day the Earth Stood Still. In wearing these influences quite brazenly on their sleeves, Abrams and Spielberg avoid being painfully meta, and instead have made a film that openly celebrates the sheer joy of filmmaking, and the way we never really grow out of the movies—and the movie makers—that we loved as children.
As the story opens, 12-year old Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney, a very natural and unaffected young actor) has just lost his mother in an industrial accident. Joe's father Jackson (the always reliable Kyle Chandler), the deputy sheriff, is a good man, but he is clearly struggling with both his wife's death and the challenges of single-parenting; his solution is to ship the kid off to baseball camp for the summer. ("You'll love it," he says. "I did.")
But Joe doesn't seem the athletic type: a budding special effects and makeup artist, Joe just wants to spend the summer helping his driven friend Charles (Riley Griffith) make a zombie movie to submit to a local film festival. Charles—a slightly controlling auteur-in-the-making, has assembled a cast and crew that includes their tightly wound friend Martin (Gabriel Basso); a funny kid named Preston (Zach Mills); and Cary (Ryan Lee), the sort of fireworks-obsessed pyromaniac—didn't we all know one?—who is destined to be either a special effects artist or a professional arsonist.
Super 8 doesn't just look like an early Spielberg movie, it's also paced like one, which means Abrams actually takes the time to get to know these kids a little before cranking up the plot. Many would-be Spielberg impersonators fail this test, not realizing that what makes those early films work—from Jaws to Close Encounters to E.T—is that Spielberg made us believe completely in his normal characters before thrusting them into extraordinary circumstances. (I think Spielberg himself forgot this somewhere around Jurassic Park, but that's a subject for another time.) It is a lesson not lost on Abrams, and it's not lost on Charles, either: he explains to Joe that their zombie movie needs a human element to make it work, and so enlists their schoolmate Alice (Elle Fanning) to play the love interest in their zombie flick.
To be honest, I would have been blissfully happy just watching these kids make their zombie movie for two hours. We see enough of this masterpiece-in-progress to laugh at the bad acting and terrible script, but also to marvel at the kids' ingenuity and creativity. (I certainly couldn't have made such convincing undead makeup, or staged a better zombie-impalement scene at 12.) It's nicely in the spirit of movie-making celebration that, instead of having their movie be childishly bad, it actually shows the nascent storytelling talents and impressive, make-do charm of the 8mm shorts Mr. Spielberg himself was making at that age. (At the risk of spoiling a nice surprise, I suggest you stick around for the credits.)
One night, while the kids have snuck out to film by the railroad tracks— "Production value!" Charles boasts—they witness, and catch on film, the horrific derailment of a military train. This action sequence is both completely thrilling and completely over-the-top, with so much fire and wreckage and flying debris it seems as though five trains have collided simultaneously. (But it's exactly the kind of gleeful cinematic mayhem a 12-year old film fanatic would grow up to stage. "Did you see those explosions?" marvels the budding munitions expert.) Almost immediately, the Air Force (led by a sinister colonel, played by Noah Emmerich) rolls into town to secure the area, making it clear that there was something unusual on this train. Shortly thereafter, strange things begin happening around town.
Which, as far as the plot is concerned, is about as far as I can go without spoiling the surprises of Super 8. You can easily imagine where it is going—and you probably won't be wrong—but part of the pleasure of this film is pretending that you don't know, and innocently going along for the ride. Abrams plays it straight, nicely drawing out the traditional beats of this kind of small-town-meets-sci-fi-story. He hasn't made a winking, post-modern, painfully self-aware parody of a B-movie (like Scream, for example); he's made the real thing.
Super 8 isn't perfect—the sci-fi element doesn't completely work by modern standards, and the third act is a little too by-the-book—but those are minor complaints about a gloriously successful film. The adventure sequences (not too horrific for kids) are well-staged, the period details are perfect, and the script treats the young characters with unusual dignity and authenticity. (If they are not quite as real as the kids in E.T., they are far less cloyingly cartoonish than The Goonies—an inevitable comparison— and miles beyond the kids in most movies of this kind.)
The heaviest duties fall to Courtney (in his first role), and Fanning (in her twenty-ninth), and both are excellent. (Fanning has always been a preternatural screen presence—I remember being impressed with her in The Door in the Floor, when she was five—but she has also turned out to be a disturbingly good actress.) The relationship between Joe and Alice feels sweetly authentic, capturing that chaste, awkward, wondrous adolescent period when you feel an attraction and connection but don't quite know what to do with it yet. (At one point, when Alice begins to open up to him, Joe—wide-eyed and heartbreakingly honest—says "I'm just amazed at this whole conversation.")
Make no mistake, Super 8 is a B-movie; if I wanted to put on my grumpy-critic hat, I'd say it lacks some of the emotional depth and dramatic scale of the real Spielberg classics that it apes. But it's a wonderful B-movie, and I smiled all the way through it, and for quite a while after. (And I'm not a smiler: ask anyone.) It took me back to my childhood, to horror-movie magazines, and Jack Kirby monsters and, yes, big summer movies at the drive-in. (I saw Super 8 on IMAX, which I highly recommend: movies like this should be big.) When you're a kid, this kind of story is what movies are for: some laughs, some action, some heroism, some scares, and some kids who save the day because they recognize things that the adults are too stupid—or too jaded—to see.
If the aspiring young filmmakers in Super 8 stay in the business—and they certainly seem to have both the drive and the chops—they will no doubt grow up to make movies like this: big, old-fashioned, summer sci-fi movies about film-obsessed boys who get to have adventures, win the attention of the prettiest girl in school, and maybe save the world. The current generation of kids who see this movie may well do the same, recreating their childhoods by following in the footsteps of Abrams and Spielberg and all the cinema wizards who came before them. There are less honorable career paths they could follow, and—as Super 8 attests—few that would be more fun.