Summer movie season is synonymous with the release of big budget fluff, containing generous amounts of eye candy to fuel ticket sales. These blockbusters place greater stock in satisfying us visually than investing us emotionally, which is disappointing for moviegoers longing for more substantial stories. Every once and a rare while though, you can find a summer film that has excellent special effects and a heart, like “Super 8,” a science fiction thriller written and directed by J.J. Abrams.
With “Super 8,” Abrams crafts a period piece which pays skillful homage to the moviemaking heyday of his executive producer Steven Spielberg. Like Spielberg’s films of the 1970s and 80s, this tale features characters that you care about and visual effects that challenge your imagination.
Abrams sets his story during the summer of 1979, in the small Ohio town of Lillian where a group of young teenagers witness a train crash, while making a Super 8 movie. After the teens learn that the incident was not an accident, an unusual string of disappearances begin to occur.
Suspicion is further raised with the appearance of government forces, determined to keep the townspeople in the dark. Their curiosity gets the best of them and the kids start digging into the events surrounding the crash. The local deputy (Kyle Chandler) also begins to ask questions as he investigates the disappearances. As the two parties learn more about the accident, they stumble onto the terrifying cover-up of a dangerous creature, which is now loose in their town.
One of the great things about the film’s focus on young characters is the respect Abrams shows them in his story. He creates them with maturity and sense of humor similar to the children in Spielberg’s “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial.” They may look like kids, but they talk like adults, often swearing like grown-ups. What’s impressive about them as characters though is the bravery they show in the face of danger when people twice their age crumble under the pressure.
In addition to “E.T.,” Abrams pays tribute to numerous other Spielberg works like “Jaws,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” and even more modern ones like “War of the Worlds.” Abrams doesn’t completely borrow however, using his own trademark intrigue surrounding the creature and inexplicable technology recovered from the train.
The only real shortcomings of “Super 8” are its lulls in pacing during the emotional moments between the characters, and the ambition in the number of genres that it attempts to honor. It feels a bit busy when it’s trying to squeeze in father-son problems, grief over the loss of a loved one, first love, and feuding families on top of the other elements in the story.
As a whole, the film plays out like a mash up of the mysterious aspects Abrams does so well in his television properties and classic Spielberg themes. It is truly a motion picture created by a movie fan for fellow buffs, because it successfully melds multiple well-known genres, without coming across tired like the sequels and remakes we know.