What kid doesn't dream of having adventures? That one day, while out walking or riding your bike, or hanging out with your friends, you're going to stumble on something incredible, something extraordinary? Of course, we outgrow that. But the nostalgia for that specific time of childhood never quite goes away. It's the awe and terror of the unknown – the possibility that the remarkable is still out there.
No filmmaker is more famous for documenting the intersection between normal life and the unknown than Steven Spielberg. Between those he directed (Jaws, Close Encounters, E.T.) and those he merely produced (The Goonies, Poltergeist), a Spielberg production is one where the characters are balanced precariously on the edge of reality, waiting for something extraordinary to appear in the night sky. And thus, it was inevitable that Steven Spielberg's chosen protege, J.J. Abrams, would turn back to document that period of time which Spielberg immortalized.
Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) is a boy beset by tragedy. Something terrible has happened to his family, and now he and his father Jackson (the great Kyle Chandler) are bereft of their normal support system, forced to deal with each other on more uncertain terms. Neither is exactly up to the challenge. And so each retreats – as Jackson suggests that his son attend a baseball camp for the summer, Joe sneaks out at night to help film his friend Charles' (Riley Griffiths as a budding suburban Orson Welles) zombie masterpiece, "The Case." More intriguingly, Charles has talked their older classmate Alice (Elle Fanning) into playing a role. As Joe finds himself drawn to Alice, he discovers hints that her father (Ron Eldard) may or may not have something to do with the tragedy that opens the film.
But then, into this small drama careens a runaway train, one Joe and his friends have the misfortune to witness. Soon mysterious portents descend on the town – every dog in town flees, power flickers wildly, car engines are stolen, and the Air Force (led by Noah Emmerich) arrives – but, as they say, everything is under control. Or is it? And through it all, Joe and his friends keep filming, inspired by what Charles calls "Production values!" But as their film and the strangeness in the town keep intersecting, it's increasingly clear that something is lurking out there…something extraordinary.
Let's get the bad out of the way first: Abrams is not as good as Spielberg at maintaining a balance between the personal and the extraordinary. There's nothing as transcendent as the ending of Close Encounters of the Third Kind or Quint's Indianapolis speech here. There's some awkward late-in-the-game exposition about what's going on that doesn't really feel necessary. And some of the payoffs (in particular, the relationship between the two fathers) don't quite work (that being said, the LAST payoff of the film, which occurs during the credits, is MORE than worth it. Seriously, stay for the credits: you won't regret it). Because of those issues, it never achieves the depth and power of Spielberg's finest works.
But goddamn, what a ride Super 8 is! Even if he's not Spielberg, Abrams is a truly talented director. He and cinematographer Larry Fong shoot the hell out of Super 8, and it looks amazing. Believe me, if you think that teaser from last year is what the train crash is like, you're wrong. They shoot it entirely from the kids' point of view (like the vast majority of the film), and it's just a tremendously thrilling, breathtaking sequence. Most of the…incidents involving whatever escaped are also well-shot. Unlike most filmmakers today, Abrams definitely learned from Jaws – that what you hint is far more suspenseful than what you show – and it works like gangbusters here. The film is paced brilliantly – it really is a roller coaster of a movie in the absolute best sense, and it just gets wilder as it goes along. He's also aided by constant collaborator Michael Giacchino, who turns in a terrific John Williams-y score. If Super 8 turns into a big word-of-mouth hit, don't be surprised if Giacchino snags a nomination.
But as he proved with Star Trek, Abrams' best quality is that he's a fine director of actors. And he demonstrates that here in spades. Down the line, the kids are all fantastic. Fanning easily outdoes her sister Dakota's turn in War of the Worlds with a sweetly nuanced performance as Alice, and Joel Courtney is a sympathetic lead as Joe. Even the more stereotypical kids, like special effects expert/potential pyromaniac Cary, are well-cast, and Abrams nails the group dynamics. I honestly don't think there's a false note in the group interactions and how the kids react to everything. It's a huge accomplishment on all their parts. As for the adults, only Chandler, Eldard, and Emmerich have sizable roles. Chandler, as always, is wonderful, and his relationship with Courtney always feels honest. I wish that Chandler had more screen time, but that might've taken away from the kids. Eldard is solid and Emmerich makes a nasty villain, but there's not all that much depth to them.
Ultimately, while it doesn't scale the heights of the Spielberg filmography (mostly due to some weak resolutions, and that it never quite reaches the thematic profundity of Spielberg's best works), Super 8 is still a fantastically entertaining, well-crafted ride. It's got terrific acting, it's funny, it's exciting, and it eats cookie-cutter franchise films like Thor or Pirates of the Caribbean 4 for breakfast. What more do you want in a summer film?