Conveying both menace and sweetness, J.J. Abrams' thriller is a layer cake of a movie that tops our expectations time and again.
I haven't seen another studio release this year that jitterbugs with love for movies like "Super 8." As the title suggests, it's a valentine to filmmaking, especially the family-oriented science-fiction variety. J.J. Abrams, who directed the best entries in the "Mission: Impossible" and "Star Trek" franchises, delivers a phenomenal pop-art experience, dazzling the senses while aiming straight for the heart.
The production has been shrouded in secrecy, and its surprises deserve to be protected. The plot, with more twists than an alien's tentacle, concerns intrigue in a provincial Ohio steel town circa 1979 that could be Nowheresville, USA. That is, until the night sky is set aflame with artillery fire and tanks thunder through the once-quiet streets.
A dozen or so characters are based in the town, and Abrams takes his time establishing them with domestic scenes of understated authenticity. At the center of things is 12-year-old Joe (Joel Courtney), an only child whose mother recently died. His dad, Jack (Kyle Chandler), is not the best-equipped father, a sheriff's deputy struggling to care for a son he doesn't know very well. Classmate Charlie (Riley Griffiths), a budding filmmaker, aims to pull Joe out of his funk by recruiting him into the zombie thriller he's shooting for an amateur film festival. The other preteen cast and crew include Cary (Ryan Lee), the funny, runty pyromaniac special-effects guy; dim leading man Martin (Gabriel Basso), and his troublemaker co-star Alice (Elle Fanning).
Shooting at a railroad station, the kid filmmakers get more than they bargained for.
A U.S. Air Force train cannonballing through town derails, resulting in a bombastic pileup and the escape from one of the sealed, steel-walled cars of ... something. Abrams keeps us in suspense about the fugitive; our first glimpse, indistinctly reflected in a puddle, is almost subliminal. This much can be revealed: It is not happy. Without warning, all the town's dogs have high-tailed it out of there and people are vanishing in attacks we can't quite see.
The mystery about this entity powers the movie; almost every character has a crisis moment of trying to decide which response is appropriate. It's not just the kids who have to puzzle their way through their encounters. Most of the adults go agog, too. Only Col. Nelec (Noah Emmerich), the military man assigned to contain the situation, lacks that sense of awe. He goes about his job with the ramrod certitude of a man who believes he has anticipated every contingency. It is a disastrous case of overconfidence.
The movie has a moral -- about the length to which we're driven by our fear of the unknown -- and lessons to teach about letting go of the past. Some message films feel like pap, but here it all goes down smoothly. Abrams puts nostalgia and suspense, humor and spectacle, mystery and sincere emotion in his blender and hits frappé.
If I had to fault the film, it wouldn't be with its preachy passages but with the train wreck, which goes from over-the-top to overkill. Abrams is a sworn enemy of physics -- remember the implausible car-over-the-cliff opening of "Star Trek"? -- but even for him this is a stretch. When one of the ragamuffin kids yells, "That's impossible!" spectators will chuckle in agreement.
What redeems the film in its awkward flashes is the sheer love of the craft that Abrams brings to the story. You can imagine him at the editing bay, his producer Steven Spielberg by his side, gushing, "Look at this cool action sequence! Check out the framing in this shot! Get a load of this performance!"
All the kids in the film, most of them first-timers, are delightful. Fanning, an eerily skilled actress portraying a playacting amateur, is spectacular. There are scenes involving the kids' zombie film where she will make your hair stand up. And when we finally see their rinky-dink production, it's the final tier on a layer cake of a movie that tops our expectations time and again. In this season of sequels, is it too much to hope for a "Super 9"?