Silver Screen: Super Eight ****
Of all the summer's carefully calibrated, effects-heavy blockbusters so far, only Super Eight evinces any real heart. J.J. Abrams's creature feature-cum-small-town disaster flick is an homage to the early films of Steven Spielberg, and a damn good one, too-- so much so that it's produced by Spielberg himself.
The movie opens with a silent, arresting shot: A camera pans up to a factory sign announcing some seven-hundred days without an accident as a morose worker takes down the numbers and replaces them with "one." That accident, we soon learn, claimed the life of Jackson Lamb's wife and Joe Lamb's mother. Jackson (the exceptional Kyle Chandler) is an emotionally walled-off sheriff's deputy in a small Ohio town, and he doesn't much understand his boy Joe (Joel Courtney), whose interests are monster movies and special-effects makeup.
While Jackson wants to ship Joe off to baseball camp, the younger Lamb wants to spend the summer of 1979 working with his friends on a zombie movie for a student film festival. Joe is in charge of makeup and effects for the portly budding tyrant Charles (Riley Griffiths), whose singular vision is to create his version of a George Romero masterpiece. With the help of the pyromaniacal Carey (Ryan Lee) and weak-stomached leading man Martin (Gabriel Basso), they've almost got the film locked up, but they also need the help of the pretty, young Alice Dainard (Elle Fanning). She's to be the leading lady-- and also provide the borrowed car to help them shoot far-flung locations at the edge of town.
While shooting a night sequence at an abandoned train station, the kids are inadvertent witnesses to a cartoonishly horrific train crash that draws the sudden interest of the Army. The kids escape unnoticed, but in the days following, a series of bizarre events rattles the town, beginning with a slew of power outages and pet disappearances, and growing more ominous when several town residents go missing. Meanwhile, the military (led by Noah Emmerich and Richard T. Jones) descends for what they claim to be a routine cleanup operation, but that starts looking more and more like a coverup. Little do the feds know, however, that their dark secret was inadvertently captured on the kids' super-eight film reel.
Super Eight is every bit as inspired by Spielberg as Todd Haynes's films recall Douglas Sirk's melodramas or Woody Allen's cerebral early period dramas aped Ingmar Bergman's moody masterpieces. And while Super Eight draws heavily on the early Spielberg canon, the three touchstone films Super Eight seems to return to again and again are The Goonies, E.T., and Jaws. The motley assortment of kids strongly recalls the Goonies gang, and our creature-- which remains unseen well into the first half of the film, like a certain infamous great white shark-- is of course bound to be misunderstood. It just wants to get home, too, although Abrams, a cocreator of Lost, is too fond of big scares to ultimately reveal a friendly, ready-made plush toy with a glowing finger.
Spielberg's seventies output was redolent with nostalgia for his childhood in the fifties and early sixties, and it's wonderfully appropriate that the much-younger Abrams, born in 1966, sets his film during Spielberg's filmmaking heydey while also suffusing it with nostalgia for his own teen years. If it sometimes feels like a funhouse-mirror refraction-- a pop artist nostalgizing the works of the Grand Nostalgizer-- the effect is not an unpleasant one, and Abrams plainly signals his intentions.
As the title suggests, Super Eight is as much a celebration of filmmaking as it is a summer blockbuster. Even as the startling events transpire around them, the kids refuse to let go of their movie project. Spielberg himself, after all, famously shot his own super-eight short films as a kid, the most oft-mentioned example of which being a train-crash sequence, one recreated both on a macrocosmic scale (in Abrams's movie) and in miniature (in the kids' film-within-a-film). This is a monster movie made for people who not only grew up watching monster movies, but wanting to make them-- with Abrams even chiding himself a little in the form of the well-intentioned but demanding Charles.
Yeah, Super Eight is big, expensive, studio-produced spectacle (beautiful spectacle, it should be noted). But it's also emotional, exciting, life-affirming wonderment, a dazzling beast born from the primordial ooze of popcorn butter and childhood fantasy.