From the earliest trailers, it appeared "Super 8" was, first and foremost, intended as a passing of the torch.
There "Super 8" was, with Steven Spielberg as producer, J.J. Abrams as director, both of them collaborating on the script, yet another government cover-up of extraterrestrial life, and newcomer Joel Courtney looking exactly like Elliott from "E.T." The message was clear: Abrams had his sights on becoming the new Spielberg, or at least replicating Spielberg's signature style for a new generation.
But "Super 8" isn't simply a homage. In fact, like any good Spielberg film, it does several things at once, and does them well.
I've seen a lot of movies struggle to juggle dozens of characters, plots, and genres, and "Super 8" is one of the best jugglers I've ever seen. The only ball I ever saw it drop was the plot, mostly at the end, but still only occasionally.
"Super 8" begins with middle schooler Joe (Courtney) struggling with grief over his mother's death in a factory accident and helping his friend Charles (Riley Griffiths, another newcomer) finish a zombie movie for an upcoming film festival. Joe finds himself falling in love with the movie's female lead, Alice (Elle Fanning), but it's a star-crossed love. Joe's father Jackson (Kyle Chandler) is the deputy sheriff, and there's bad blood between Jackson and Alice's alcoholic father Louis.
On the first night that Alice joins Joe, Charles, and all their friends for filming at a train station, someone drives a pick-up truck head-on into a government train. The kids barely escape with their lives, but they also escape with the Super 8 camera they left running. The footage on that camera holds the key to the mystery that soon develops in Joe's town, as dogs run away in droves, car engines and power cables get stolen, and people, including the sheriff, go missing.
I've said "Super 8" is primarily a Spielberg tribute, but that's really only a matter of window dressings - the way scenes are shot, the truckloads of explosions, and a selection of familiar plot elements. The true core of "Super 8" is the love story between Joe and Alice.
A lot of that story is shown, not told, in the way the two do and don't make eye contact, in smiles and tears, in the way Joe lovingly applies Alice's zombie make-up. This element is really where Abrams shines, Courtney shines more and Fanning becomes a star. Fanning is so talented that Abrams actually shows her off when Alice first acts in Charles' movie, and the audience actually buys it.
Which leads into the other main element of "Super 8," the one that really gives the movie an identity apart from its Spielberg homages: Thanks in part to Charles' movie-within-a-movie, "Super 8" is profoundly meta-fictional.
Because the characters are themselves filmmakers, they are outlets through which Abrams can be self-aware. It not only serves as one more Spielberg tribute, highlighting Spielberg's own boyhood filmmaking hobbies, but it also lets Abrams be post-Spielberg without exactly satiring Spielberg.
This is a movie where a soldier shoots his general an incredulous glance when asked to take a look outside and try to spot the alien monster. It's a movie where one of Joe's friends expresses similar disbelief at the heartwarming, yet unlikely way the story finally resolves. In this movie, someone gets high on marijuana when the kids desperately need him to drive them somewhere, and one kid actually says "Drugs are so bad!" out loud.
Crucial: None of this post-Spielberg snark cuts into the love story. That would have killed "Super 8."
Finally, "Super 8" is also a J.J. Abrams sci-fi mystery. I picked up on a few clues and a lot of red herrings, keeping me guessing until the end. Despite this, the truth behind "Super 8" is simple and familiar, and I didn't mind. I've found that if you try to surprise the audience too much, you wind up becoming M. Night Shyamalan.
However, it seems to me that there are holes in the plot, which become more and more frequent as the movie goes on. One plot hole is nearly as unbelievable as that infamous scene in "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" where Indy survives a nuclear explosion by ducking into a lead-lined fridge.
"Super 8" does so many things well, however, that it seems petty to take too much off its score for taking me out of the experience occasionally. That's especially true given that the times it purposely takes me out of the experience are so hilarious. "Super 8" is a movie specifically for movie lovers with enough heart for everyone else, and that's really all there is to making a great Spielberg movie.
Nalley's rating: 3 and 1/2 stars out of 4