“From writer-director J.J. Abrams,” the poster says in big letters, “and producer Steven Spielberg,” in letters just as big. That triumph of dual brand-identity marketing is the first thing people talk about, and Super 8’s salient feature.
Super 8, about a group of kids who capture a freak event on their cameras, is a throwback to the kind of suspenseful films pioneered by Steven Spielberg early in his career.
This is a summer movie like they used to make (except with special effects like they make now). The setting is an industrial Ohio town in the summer of 1979. The principal players are a group of young amateur moviemakers. They witness, and photograph, a spectacular train crash, and it changes their lives. As we used to say: There’s doin’s a transpirin’! The kids (including Joel Courtney, Riley Griffiths and Elle Fanning) discover something that the adults (including Kyle Chandler and Ron Eldard) don’t understand, except some adults do understand, because they have sinister motives. The kids are good. The young cast works through the material with aplomb. The nuances of their hierarchy are well played: A couple of them don’t get enough to do, but that’s how it goes.
And if you like seeing kids ride their bikes and pal around and get on each other’s nerves and get into mischief, Super 8 scratches that itch. If you want more, like a raging space invader with advanced technology, be patient. And if you want more still, don’t push your luck.
Was it not clear to you that this film’s first duty is to Spielberg, the original summer movie maestro and the inventor of what we now know as wide release? Of course, there is something smug and tedious about an homage to Spielberg bankrolled by Spielberg, and that this sort of thing has been going on for a while now only compounds the tedium.
But at least Super 8 will generate no complaints about the producer misunderstanding or meddling with the writer-director’s “vision.” And although Abrams’ stolid pacing suggests he’s mistaken stiffness for crispness, he does not seem paralyzed by the anxiety of influence.
Even those of us who grew up on summer movies have had time to wonder what life was like in an earlier time. Kids growing up now might wonder what life was like before movies were just about being nostalgic for other movies. Super 8 is so meticulously derivative that it almost becomes a defense of increasingly indefensible sequels and reboots.
Here there is no suspense. A Cloverfield-style monster is revealed gradually. It won’t hurt anyone who is positioned to matter. Its presence pushes feuding factions into detente. It becomes the core of this movie, instead of the kids and their amateur moviemaking.
Which is too bad, because Abrams was on to something there.