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Super 8

JJ Abrams writes a love note to Stephen Spielberg with aliens, explosions and boyish wonder

Newcomers Joel Courtney and Ryan Lee in Super 8.

Did you ever wonder what would have happened if ET had been found by the government instead of that adorable moppet Elliott?
    When extraterrestrials don’t get to phone home, they get mightily pissed, according to JJ Abrams’ (Star Trek) new film Super 8. Less an original monster movie than a homage to Stephen Spielberg’s ET and works of the 1970s and ‘80s, Abrams gets away with the tribute by keeping his writing solid and his cast of characters interesting.
    In 1979 in Lillian Ohio, a group of young filmmakers are at work on a zombie movie. Director Charles (Riley Griffiths; first screen appearance) is an Orwellian force with his sights set on a local film festival. His best friend Joe (Joel Courtney; first screen appearance) is less focused on filmmaking, having just lost his mother in an industrial accident and adjusting to life with his distant sheriff’s deputy father (Kyle Chandler: Friday Night Lights).
    Joe perks up when his crush, Alice (Elle Fanning: Somewhere) joins the movie for a late-night shoot at a train station. There, an Air Force train interrupts filming by rudely crashing in the middle of the kids’ shoot.
    All the kids survive, and so does whatever was on that train.
    Soon, dogs start running away, people start disappearing and the lights start flickering in Lillian. The military stonewalls the sheriff’s office, but the kids keep making their movie — now featuring a train crash and real military sequences! — and slowly discover what’s happening to their town.
    The strength in this movie is its incredible collection of young actors. While Chandler sells his tough-dad role well enough, it’s newcomer boys, most making their screen debut, who carry the film. Courtney’s wide-eyed sweetness and wonder make him both relatable and believable as a boy coming to grips with adult problems.
    Sure, his pack of friends could loosely resemble a Goonies reunion, but even the secondary boys get specific personalities and believable characters. Most believably, these teen boys curse — well, at least when the adults aren’t looking. It’s gosh-darn refreshing to know that mine wasn’t the only generation that knew four-letter words before we knew how to drive.
    Abrams has proved a skilled action director, and he doesn’t disappoint. The train crash sequence is a calamity of groaning steel colliding into fireballs that shower shrapnel onto the screaming, fleeing children. It’s a breathless and brilliant sequence.
    Less brilliant is Abrams’ monster, which again is teased and partially glimpsed for over half the movie. Much as in Spielberg’s Jaws, when you finally get a good look at this town destroying entity, it’s — well, not nearly as scary as you imagined. I doubt Abrams wanted to elicit an oh, that’s kinda interesting reaction after all that unnecessary buildup. Better to show us the big bad upfront if your effects can’t live up to the mystery.
    Much as in a Spielberg film, if you stop to think about the plot holes around you, you’re apt to fall into one. Super 8 is a wondrous break from the cynicism that modern films foist upon childhood. It’s a world devoid of pre-teen angst, drugs and promiscuity — instead filled with fairly well adjusted and somewhat innocent kids looking for adventure.
    View this film with the childlike wonder so gloriously portrayed by the young actors, and you’re in for a flick that will remind you what was so great about being a kid.

Great Adventure • PG-13 • 112 mins.