The first 20 minutes or so of “Super 8″ are so clogged with references to a series of great movies from the ’80s that you start to wonder if it’s ever going to gain its own footing as a film. References to “E.T,” “Goonies” and “Stand By Me” abound; we’ve got kids on bikes, family tragedy in the background, plenty of golden hour shots (including one pan up over the town grid that seems straight out of “E.T.”,) and lots of just-offscreen chatter from a band of misfit middle schoolers. The nostalgia, for some of us, is bound to be pretty thick. These kids love movies, and so are making one of their own; the same could be said of the people making this movie. They seem more interested in replicating the films they loved than in making anything new.
But eventually, “Super 8″ finds its footing and starts to make its bid to join, and not just imitate, the movies I mentioned above. Elle Fanning joins the group of misfits and their moviemaking adventures, and this young actress deserves a lot of credit for lending the movie its own emotional gravity; aside from her, the gang of youngsters is terribly lightweight and one note; it highlighted for me how much the movies I mentioned above owed to great performances from young prodigy actors like Henry Thomas, Drew Barrymore, Will Wheaton, Corey Feldman, Sean Astin, and River Phoenix. That’s a pretty amazing list, really. One thing Spielberg, Donner and Reiner got right in the ’80s, clearly, was their ability to pick kids who could act. JJ Abrams doesn’t fare so well.
But he does have Fanning, and nostalgia on his side, and, well, solid production values. That’s more than most films can claim. The kids are witness to a fantastic train wreck that sets loose some kind of creature and brings in the Air Force, who are secretive and clearly up to no good (there’s another ’80s throwback: military “invasions” of smalltown America — though perhaps that’s more of a reference “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” than anything else.) Weird things start happening all over town, and the kids have something on their camera that might explain everything — but then disaster strikes, and strikes again, and it’s up to this gang of misfits to save the world, or each other, or maybe that’s the same thing.
Watching “Super 8″ is a deeply engaging and emotionally powerful experience. It’s a monster movie, but it’s also a movie about that time in life when we most loved monster movies. It owes an awful lot to “E.T.” and doesn’t quite live up to that film – but come on, we’re talking about one of the best movies ever made; that’s a high bar to set for any movie. It does succeed on a number of levels, it’s heartwarming, often funny, exciting, and return us back to an age of wide-eyed, openhearted movie watching. It is certainly one of the best movies of the summer.
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