J.J. Abrams’ Super 8 (2011) is unabashed Steven Spielberg nostalgia, recalling the feel of E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. It’s clearly an homage, and a successful one — but it left me, perhaps illogically, feeling mildly disappointed that it hadn’t shown me anything new.
Set in a small town in Ohio in the early 1980s, the film follows young Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney). Still recovering from a family tragedy, Joe has a frosty relationship with his police deputy father Jackson (Kyle Chandler), who doesn’t quite understand Joe’s passion for making movies with his friends. Unexpected romance comes into his life when Alice Dainard (Elle Fanning) is cast in the zombie movie they’re making. As the group is shooting her first scene at the town’s tiny train station, Joe and his friends witness a mysterious, enormous accident — and they quickly become The Kids Who Knew Too Much when a military detachment bears down on the community, hellbent on covering up evidence of a government conspiracy. Can Joe and his friends unravel the mystery and outsmart the adults in charge?
Super 8 is sure-handed, wide-eyed SF adventure, soundly structured and nicely produced. Courtney, Fanning, and Chandler are very good and Abrams has a firm handle on the film’s tone and mission. For some reason, though, I found this one diverting without being engrossing, eye candy pushing at sense of wonder buttons that, for me anyway, aren’t quite as powerful as they used to be. While Courtney and Fanning are quite likeable, the rest of the kids felt whiny and obnoxious — realistically, but also annoyingly, so. And while the SFnal mystery propelling the action starts well and is revealed skillfully, the ultimate revelation felt kind of old hat to me. (The lower budget, more interesting Monsters achieved the emotional response for me that Super 8 pursues, less manipulatively, and without feeling reheated.)
For me, then, a conditional success — an entertaining film that certainly achieves all its aims. But the nostalgic trappings didn’t quite work true magic, damn my cynical heart.