J.J. Abrams gave the world "Lost," a TV show with the most complicated mythology ever. It had monsters and weird science and even time travel. People either loved it or loathed it. I, for one, adored it. Having spent most of his career as a writer/producer/director in TV, Abrams made his feature film directing debut with 2006's Mission: Impossible III, followed by his terrifically fun reboot of Star Trek in 2009. Last year, Abrams teamed up with the creator of the Summer Blockbuster, Steven Spielberg to make Super 8.
It's the summer 1979 and a group of friends are helping their buddy Charles make a zombie movie for a Super 8 Film Contest. Joe (Joel Courtney) is the makeup and sound guy. Joe builds Aurora monster models and uses tips from the Dick Smith book 'Movie Monster Makeup' to create his zombie effects. And he just lost his mother in an industrial accident at the small town Ohio steel plant where she worked. Alice (Elle Fanning) is brought in to play the new character Charles just added, much to Joe's not-so-secret delight. When the friends, including Cary, Martin and Preston, sneak away to shoot a train station scene at midnight, they end up witnessing (and recording) a horrific train derailment. Of course, it turns out the train is an Air Force transport train, carrying... something. Almost immediately afterward, strange things start happening in town: people disappear, all the dogs run away and the power starts acting funny. When the Sheriff goes missing, it's up to the town's deputy -- and Joe's still-grieving, distant father -- to try and find out what's going on.
Hearkening back to those early Spielberg movies, Super 8 is Sci-Fi adventure that's part Goonies, part Close Encounters and part Cloverfield. It's also a welcome return to the kind of summer movie where character and story are more important than explosions and special effects. Don't get me wrong, there are plenty of explosions and special effects, but they're there to enhance the plot, not to distract the audience from noticing the lack of one. The performances are terrific across the board, but this is Joe's story and young Joel Courtney is simply wonderful in his film debut, reminding us all of what it's like to be 13 and in love for the first time. And Ms Fanning (last seen in Sofia Coppola's Somewhere) is just radiant as Alice, displaying -- at age 13 -- skills most actresses spend decades developing. I'm betting she'll eclipse her older, more famous sister and go on to an amazing career. Kyle Chandler plays Joe's confused, frightened and still mourning father with just the right mix of fear and anger while Ron Eldard as Alice's father is right on target as a guilt-ridden, over-protective single dad. There are plenty of appearances from character actors you've seen a hundred times, including Glynn Turman; Noah Emmerich; Jessica Tuck and the voice of Homer Simpson, Dan Castelleneta.
Abrams' script is funny, exciting and scary at all the right times (watch for a very amusing reference to the 'Father of all Zombies') and he never lets his directing get in the way, often deliberately mimicking Spielberg's style without making it seem like he's stealing at all. Chock full of exciting chases and escapes; creepy, half-seen monstrosities; nostalgic humor and a touch of young love, Super 8 is a welcome return and homage to the A-Movie version of the classic B-Movie. Don't let this one slip by without seeing it on a big screen. **** (Four Out of Four Stars).
By the way, do yourself a huge favor and stick around for a rather delightful surprise during the end credits.