By Steve Persall
Times Film Critic
Years melt away during J.J. Abrams' Super 8, taking viewers back to days of gremlins and Goonies, when movie kids looked and acted real, and everything was almost right with the world. That is, until the creature showed up.
Super 8 is more than nostalgia, though. Yes, it captures the feel of a steel town in 1979, and the Spielbergian sheen of a movie these children might have sat through twice on a hot Saturday afternoon. It's also a movie of here-and-now thrills, goosed by judicious CGI effects that never overpower the humanity of the situation.
Checking the credits isn't necessary to know Steven Spielberg's imagination is involved with Super 8, as a producer. This feels like a movie he would've made 30 years ago, when it seemed like every other cine-fantasy with a childlike perspective bore his name in some capacity.
Abrams is unabashed in his devotion to that era, with elements of E.T., The Goonies and Close Encounters of the Third Kind evident in his film. The hub of the plot — classmates on summer vacation making a zombie home movie — is straight from both their childhoods. The formula is simple: An ordinary situation becomes extraordinary, then scary and finally magical. I didn't realize how much I'd missed those days and movies until Super 8 revived them.
As it was then, there's a regular kid at the center of world-shaking events. Joe Lamb is as regular as kids could be before cell phones, video games and the Internet, and Joel Courtney is an actor easily projecting that cultural purity. Joe is grieving when introduced; his mother was killed in a factory accident, and his father, sheriff's Deputy Jackson Lamb (Kyle Chandler) is unsure about raising his son alone.
Joe's only respite is getting together with his pals to make a movie, with pudgy, pushy Charles (Riley Griffiths) directing, using tips picked up from magazines and a Super 8 camera. The star is Martin (Gabriel Basso), who's too gawky to be convincing as a hard-boiled detective but he's handy. The zombies are mostly played by Cary (Ryan Lee), a firebug by hobby who loves playing undead.
Of course, there's a girl, an unattainable object of chaste desire for Joe and his buddies. She is Alice (Elle Fanning), a kind of sawed-off Grace Kelly — and if you don't believe that just check Abrams' movie star camera pan on her face when she's introduced. Alice's father (Ron Eldard) and Joe's dad don't like each other, for reasons that — like much of Super 8 — shouldn't be spoiled.
One night's filming at a train station puts the boys and Alice in a catastrophic situation when a passing train derails. You probably won't see a more thrilling action sequence in any movie this year, a sickening pileup of twisted metal and flames with the heroes barely dodging flying debris. It's also the only sequence that feels contemporary, since '80s computer effects were primitive compared to today's.
Yes, there's an alien involved, teased by Abrams with Cloverfield peek-a-booism. The invader's motivations and ambitions are mysteries for much of the film, as they will be here. But make no mistake: Super 8 is worth the extra effort to remain in the dark, so its old-school popcorn delights stay fresh. Abrams is dealing with an extraterrestrial, but what he's really fiddling with is time travel, back to the '80s when kids hadn't yet seen it all.
Steve Persall can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8365.