Super 8 is entertaining as all get out. Big action, big thrills and chills, big emotion, big laughs. It's incredibly derivative (Stand by Me, The Goonies, E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, anyone? With a few flourishes from Lost?), but so engrossing that the lack of originality isn't much of a problem. And you know that moment right at the end of a film when the closing credits begin to roll and you begin to reflect on what you've just seen? You don't get to do that, because a bonus feature runs alongside the credits that is so much fun that when you finally leave the theater, it's with a grin on your face.
J.J. Abrams, the man behind Lost and the Star Trek reboot, is the writer and director of Super 8. Steven Spielberg is one of the producers. The most influential one. Abrams has crafted a feature-length homage to the movies Spielberg was associated with during the early part of his amazing career. Nothing wrong with that, as long as it stands as a work unto itself.
The story is set in a small Ohio steel mill town in 1979. While making their own movie (using the then-popular Super 8 mm film), a group of kids witness - and inadvertently film - the most bad-ass train wreck ever depicted on film. During the crash, something breaks out of one of the cars and disappears into the darkness. Something big and powerful.
The military comes to investigate, people and pets start disappearing, and the suspense builds. This being an homage to Spielberg, the main focus is on the interaction between the young teens. The two most prominent kids come from one-parent homes, as was the norm in Spielberg-related films back in the day. Doe-eyed Joe (Joel Courtney) is the makeup artist on the crew of the zombie movie being made by his demanding friend Charles (Riley Griffiths). Joe lives with his dad, Deputy Sheriff Jackson Lamb (Kyle Chandler, so perfect in the Friday Night Lights TV series). Mom was killed in an accident at work and the father and son don't really communicate. Alice (Elle Fanning), the recently-recruited zombie movie leading lady, is protective of her father Louis (Ron Eldard). I didn't catch why Mom is absent, but Dad has all kinds of personal problems and there's major tension between him and Deputy Lamb.
That's all I can tell you about the plot without getting into spoiler territory, so here's your SPOILER ALERT: There's a monster! Or maybe not quite! END SPOILER ALERT.
The relationships between the main kids are well-done, particularly the budding romance between Joe and Alice. The kid-parent scenes are more perfunctory, particularly the inevitable moments of reconciliation. The seeking-the-creature business is well-handled by Abrams, as he lays out moments from various Spielberg-related movies that build nicely, even though the climax of the creature storyline is borderline-groan-inducing, though not nearly as groan-inducing as it appears to be headed just a few scenes earlier.
I want to stress that these criticisms are the result of me sitting down in front of a keyboard and mulling over the movie. When I actually watched Super 8, I wasn't bothered by this stuff. I just had a good time. I suggest you set aside your critical eye and go have fun. And don't leave when the closing credits start to roll or you'll miss the bonus footage - and it's a real treat!