For a stretch of the 1980s, there wasn’t enough Steven Spielberg to go around. While continuing to direct a movie every year or two, Spielberg produced films that had the look and feel of Spielberg-by-proxy, films filled with end-of-childhood adventures, suburbs, and small towns that doubled as unexpected sites of wonder or horror. In the best of them, directors like Joe Dante and Robert Zemeckis put their personal stamp on Spielbergian themes while creating popcorn-friendly films to rival their inspiration. Set in the streets, magic-hour-blanketed hills, and cluttered suburban homes of a small Ohio town as the 1970s edge into the ’80s, the J.J. Abrams-scripted-and-directed Super 8—which Spielberg produced—consciously, and successfully, looks back to an era of abundant Spielbergiana.
Joel Courtney leads a cast of talented, mostly unfamiliar kid actors as the middle-school-aged son of Kyle Chandler, a sheriff’s deputy who struggles with the demands of single parenthood after his wife dies in a steel-mill accident. Courtney copes by escaping into a world of models and monster magazines, and fills his free hours making a zombie film with his movie-mad pal Riley Griffiths. Their film progresses nicely, especially after the addition of Elle Fanning as their female lead, even though Chandler blames her father (Ron Eldard) for his wife’s death. Then, filming surreptitiously at an abandoned train station one night, they witness a train derailment that ushers in a series of mysterious happenings that might be explained by events they unwittingly captured on film.
Saying more would spoil Super 8’s carefully cultivated aura of surprise, but suffice it to say that what follows won’t be too surprising to those who have seen the films that lend Super 8 their DNA—Spielberg’s and others. That makes Abrams’ film both welcomingly and frustratingly familiar, and more the latter as it goes along. Abrams has a gift for capturing awe and dread—sometimes both at once—and a less-inspiring command of what to do with it. More troublingly, the film’s emotional elements feel more tacked-on than deeply considered, though the performances help rescue some thinly conceived relationships. (Fanning in particular deserves extra credit on this front.)
That said, of all the filmmakers who have tried to recapture the Spirit Of ’82, nobody has succeeded as well as Abrams does here. Super 8 constructs a believably complicated small-town world, fills it with the right period details (apart from an anachronism here and there), shoots it lushly, gives it a Michael Giacchino score filled with John Williams-isms, then tests its residents’ sense of order, righteousness, and willingness to stand up to authority with a chaotic element that could destroy them. Its pleasures are borrowed, but durable.