What happens when a kid with a camera finds reality rocketing beyond his eeriest alien fantasies? For answers, catch Super 8, a retro monster mash with a child's heart, a prodigy's unstoppable imagination and FX dazzle to spare. Writer-director J.J. Abrams and producer Steven Spielberg have tapped their youthful celluloid dreams to craft the ultimate home movie, a creature feature built to scare you silly and maybe save the world.
It seems fitting that the director of the Star Trek prequel would unite with the master behind Close Encounters of the Third Kind and War of the Worlds. Abrams was only 15 when Spielberg, two decades older and impressed by the kid's Super 8 films, hired him to organize the 8mm movies he himself made as a teen. In a sense, they both come from outer space, an obsession with sci-fi embedded in their DNA.
Set in an Ohio steel town in the summer of 1979, Super 8 blends the fun vibe of The Goonies (story by Spielberg) with the parallel-universe thrills of Abrams' Lost and Fringe. The film's teen misfits are bonded by hormones and a need to connect. Newcomer Joel Courtney is stellar as Joe Lamb, 14, a boy reeling from the death of his mother and the emotional absence of his dad (Kyle Chandler), the deputy sheriff.
Filmmaking provides a harbor for Joe. But he's not the driving force behind the Super 8 camera. That would be Charles (feisty Riley Griffiths), the perfectionist auteur of their zombie movie (loved the crude footage of nails driven into the skull of the undead). Joe handles the special effects. Martin (Gabriel Basso), Preston (Zach Mills) and braces-wearing Cary (expert scene-stealer Ryan Lee) pretend to follow the leader.
New to this boys' club is Alice (Elle Fanning), a dream girl Charles recruits for the female lead. His instincts for talent are spot-on. Alice, a tomboy about to blossom, has grown a backbone from coping with her dad (Ron Eldard), who hit the bottle after Alice's mom split. Fanning, so luminous in Sofia Coppola's Somewhere, shines brighter here. No wonder Charles and Joe fall hard. Fanning delivers a shooting-star performance that takes you places you don't see coming.
The "Whaaat!" moments start with a fireball of a train wreck that explodes with sound and visual fury. Later, we'll see the same scene as recorded by the primitive Super 8 camera. The contrast is illuminating. Can you spot a monster crawling out of the wreckage?
Abrams and Spielberg don't always bring out the best in each other. The clichéd shot of children staring skyward in wonder should have died with 1991's Hook. And Abrams has a propensity for adding plot twists that go nowhere (hello, Lost). Still, Super 8 kicks in where it counts. Pulses will pound and palms will sweat. But nothing works without a human connection. The monster that ate Manhattan in Cloverfield, which Abrams produced in 2008, lacked a soul. In Super 8, Abrams makes us care. This movie, a true beauty, will put a spell on you.