Super 8 is an incredible success as summer blockbusters go. It's a rousing, good clean throwback to a simpler time that goes great with popcorn, air conditioning, roughly a gallon of Coca-Cola, and an ounce of willing nostalgia. It helps, of course, if you also have a free Saturday morning, or a summer off from school. J.J. Abrams has knowingly directed an old-school Steven Spielberg film, and Spielberg (sitting in the producer's seat) has sat back and guided this half-homage in all the right ways. Super 8 is, perhaps, a celluloid version of Proust's madeleine. Moments into our first bite, we're transported into a glorious remembrance of things past, of creature features, childhood games, and days spent biking to check out books on unexplained phenomenon from the library. Though I technically wasn't old enough to see flicks like E.T. or The Goonies in their first runs, Super 8 took me to those moments and more. It's built to tap right into your youth, to channel time spent propped on the couch with a tape in the VCR and mom in the kitchen, and those first viewings of Indiana Jones, Star Wars, and Back to the Future. This is a sensation worth paying the price of admission for, and Abrams has studied his source material well.
The film is best, perhaps, in its first half hour or so. Without too much spectacle or lens flare, Super 8 carefully assembles all the pieces that will allow for an emotional connection to survive as the more ridiculous elements take hold. Cinematography and art direction plays a major role in this, and the pros in charge have done wonders personalizing the spaces of these characters. A teenager's bedroom is an extension of their personality, and the beginning walkie talkie conversations and hurried digs through piles of mess does no disservice to the film's young protagonists. The housing division is deftly chosen, the cars and bicycles neatly placed, but it's as we travel through the messy suburban bedrooms decorated with posters of John Carpenter films and painted models, strewn with cast off clothes, bed sheets, and stray siblings, we understand who junior high kid Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) used to be before his mother's untimely death. We similarly grasp the monster movie obsession that will guide Charles (Riley Griffiths) to a bigger and better future. Their relationship clicks, somehow, almost subconsciously. We realize that we know these places and we know these kids; they're the neighbors you battled on dirt hills with before puberty hit. They're the boys happily watching late night TV and secretly pining away after girls they'd rather not mention unless necessary. This is what makes Super 8 work. It's a great adventure not because of its science fiction elements, but because it captures childhood, and all the secrets, mysteries, suspicions, and grown-up plots that go along with it, so well.
Joe and his friends are using their summer vacation to help Joe's obvious BFF Charles work on his entry for a youth film competition. It's a zombie piece peppered with references to George Romero and filmed on super 8 with all the boys dressed up as adults and playing soldiers and hard-boiled detectives. What else does it have? Oh, yeah, Alice Dainard (Elle Fanning, the oldest 13 year old on the planet), who Joe swoons over though their relationship is one hampered by bad blood between their fathers. In the midst of a blissful evening of joy riding and film making, the crew witnesses a 'pretty mint' deliberate train crash. Someone caused it, there was something on that train, something that needed an end, they just don't know what. As the kids keep their lips sealed, the military moves into town and strange things begin to occur: dogs are fleeing, people are disappearing, engines are being stripped from every car in the dealership lot. In your standard action-driven summer blockbuster, this is the point at which the film might just become one big chase scene in which the kids are constantly narrowly missing a bullet to the head. Super 8, thankfully, is character-driven. While we're given crucial developments in the case via scenes with Joe's police deputy father (Kyle Chandler), the kids believably have the goldfish memories kids tend to. They worry, they fret, but they also fret and worry about not being able to hang out or how realistic the make-up looks, or whether Alice Dainard likes one of them more than another. These small moments are where the film comes into its own, and where it separates itself from the prosaic, heartless summer battleships.
Of course, it's not perfect. What it achieves in feel good heart, it occasionally skimps on in terms of real sci-fi cohesion. The action here is often fairly sloppy, and while I could excuse or explain away quite a bit of the logical pratfalls of the exploding, creature-y, machine gun scenes, the fact of the matter is that compared with the human interest story, the sci-fi aspect is fairly weak. The secrets held by the film are the stuff of repetition. They're cobbled together from other films, offer very little we haven't seen before, and are concluded with [POTENTIAL SPOILERS] the sort of too-perfectly coincidental closing scene Spielberg got slammed for in his remake of War of the Worlds. Normally, I wouldn't hesitate to argue that Super 8 might be best with its last ten minutes reconsidered, but then again, I did feel them as I was watching the film, so who am I to say? Super 8 isn't merciless, that's not the point. It's also not quite an action movie, though it sometimes pretends to be one. Instead its a coming of age in a fantastical war zone, its themes run oddly around unity and togetherness in numerous forms, and yes, though the kids are pretty salty, Abrams drops in some artificial sweetener to make you feel good about it. And yeah, it's artifice, but it's built for summer days, not Oscar build-up.