Loving, Playful, and spectacularly well made, Super 8 is easily the best summer movie of the year — of many years. And I make that declaration with full knowledge that the season has just begun. It’s been eons since a movie has conjured up such intense, specific feelings, images, memories, and nostalgic fantasies about American summertime youth — everyone’s American summertime youth, regardless of current age, nationality, sex, or climate. It’s been ages since adolescent innocence, fatherly authority, and everyday awe were in movie vogue. This irresistible story of middle-school-age kids who set out to make a zombie flick, accidentally witness a sensational train crash, and become involved in a tale of extraterrestrial mystery straight out of an E.T.-era Steven Spielberg pic may leave viewers dumbstruck: How have we survived for so long on such a meager, high-cal, low-nutrition diet of processed summertime superhero sequels?
Super 8 is an antidote to that emotional-?vitamin deficiency. It’s also a great specimen of original storytelling grounded in a sophisticated respect for storytellers who have come before. Writer-director J.J. Abrams has described his movie as a love letter to the kind of Super 8 monsters-and-chases stuff he made as a boy, which were influenced by the Raiders/Close Encounters sagas of Steven Spielberg, who himself made 8mm monsters-and-chases stuff as a boy. (Spielberg is a Super 8 producer.) The loop works beautifully.
As with Spielberg’s earlier, culture-changing pop sagas, the gigantic science-fiction mystery that drives the sci part of Abrams’ well-paced fi is awesome. (Why are secretive military troops so intent on taking charge of the wrecked train and its contents? What strange alien force is tearing out the town’s power lines and ripping the engines from cars?) But the human characters involved are given equal weight. The cast — both the kid pals making their zombie movie and the adults around them — is the result of inspired blending. Among the younger players, 15-year-old novice Joel Courtney holds the screen with his unteachably open-faced sweetness in the pivotal role of Joe, a boy experiencing first grief (with Spielberg-esque inevitability, his mother recently died) and first love (extraterrestrially talented Elle Fanning plays the one girl among the boys). Among the adults, Friday Night Lights’ great Kyle Chandler is ideal as the town’s deputy sheriff (he’s Joe’s father, and a grieving widower himself), while The Walking Dead’s Noah Emmerich slides expertly into the job of the sinister head of military operations who commandeers the town.
Typical of such outstanding Abrams productions as Star Trek, Cloverfield, and TV’s addictive megamystery Lost, Super 8 wears its humor and knowledge lightly, both in screenplay and in production values. There is as much time available, in this lovely summer movie, for a convenience-store dude to marvel at the invention of the Walkman (a personal stereo system!); for a couple of boy buddies to fight over a girl; for various bodies to be snatched in the best monster-movie tradition; and for townsfolk to gather, united in wonder at something astonishing happening in the sky. As a result, we gather in wonder too, aloft with pleasure. A