"Super 8" is the rarest of things this time of year: a summer blockbuster that's completely earnest and irony-free, not filled with cheeky pop-culture references or cheesy product placement. The effects, while spectacular, also happen to be germane to the plot, and they have an intimate, tactile quality, rather than seeming too glossy or removed from reality. (And they're NOT in 3-D. Yes, it is indeed possible.)
So all you're left with is ... story. And strong performances. And well-developed characters. And a believable emotional arc. And genuine thrills.
And that's apropos, given that it's a love letter to the man who skillfully wove together all those elements in inventing the modern blockbuster.
J.J. Abrams has crafted a loving, meticulously detailed homage to Steven Spielberg, who's one of the film's producers - specifically, the director's work from the late 1970s and early "80s - but it never feels like a rip-off, and it certainly never lapses into parody. As writer and director, Abrams effectively conveys a mood - a mixture of innocence, fear and ultimately hope - that Spielberg managed to create again and again. He also captures a familiar sense of childhood loneliness - a need to escape and belong - and the adventures that can spring from that yearning.
The kids at the center of this sci-fi thriller, many of whom had never appeared in a feature film before, are total naturals and bounce off each other with effortless, goofy humor. And lookie here: The boy who's the film's freshly scrubbed and hugely likable star, Joel Courtney, bears more than a slight resemblance to an "E.T."-era Henry Thomas.
Yes, "Super 8" is Spielbergian not just in tone but in technique, as well. Several of the director's preferred camera angles and movements are on display, especially from his early days: crane shots, the way he pushes in from underneath on an actor's face, the way he makes lights in the night sky look simultaneously mystical and menacing. (Cinematographer Larry Fong's work repeatedly calls to mind "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" - in a good way.)
Some sort of strange encounter is indeed happening in the small, blue-collar town of Lillian, Ohio, in the summer of 1979. First comes the train crash, a marvel of screeching wheels and fiery, flying freight cars that a group of aspiring filmmakers just happens to witness while shooting a low-budget zombie flick on - you guessed it - Super 8 film. Then the neighborhood dogs go missing. Then the electricity goes out - and then the appliances and wires themselves disappear. Finally the military takes the whole place over, led by Noah Emmerich (and you know he's a villain from the first moment you see him because ... well, because he's Noah Emmerich; the generic government bad guys are the weak link here).
We will respect the desire for secrecy that has become a trademark of the creator of "Lost" and refrain from elaborating further. Anyway, it's the MacGuffin - what's happening in Lillian isn't nearly as important as how the kids react to it, and how it forces them to reconsider their relationships with their parents.
Courtney's character, 12-year-old Joe, and his dad (Kyle Chandler), the town's deputy sheriff, are both struggling with the death of Joe's mother months early in an industrial accident; they don't know how to grieve individually and they don't know how to support each other, either. Joe finds a welcome distraction in serving as a makeup artist and supporting player for his best friend, Charlie (Riley Griffiths), a bossy film nerd working on his latest production.
Even before the train crash sent everyone into a tizzy, Joe had found himself swept up in his first crush: on the film's leading lady, the teenaged Alice, played by Elle Fanning with her usual preternatural poise and ethereal beauty. But the accident itself, while frightening, isn't necessarily a bad thing to these kids; as Charlie boisterously points out, it also adds production values.
A love of movies infuses every moment of "Super 8," and not just the work of Spielberg. Abrams borrows heavily but he also tells a story that's very much its own entity. The idea that being a part of a film can provide a gateway to an exciting, new life - regardless of which side of the camera you're on - is infectious, and so devoid of cynicism that's it's hard not to be charmed.
That feeling carries through all the way to the closing credits, so make sure you stay in your seat for the full payoff.
"Super 8" a Paramount Pictures release, is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi action and violence, language and some drug use. Running time: 112 minutes. Three stars out of four.