New on DVD: Super 8 (2011)

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J.J. Abrams’ Super 8 is a riff on all those Spielberg-inspired films from the ‘80s in which suburban kids got sucked into other-worldly adventures.

Goonies is a big influence here. So is E.T., Close Encounters of the Third Kind and a half-dozen other titles.

As a work of homage, Super 8 will have you tabulating references to all those movies. It makes for a diverting parlor game.

The film itself is a mixed bag. The first half is excellent, with Abrams and a spectacular cast of young performers delivering several strikingly original sequences.

And then Super 8 becomes a movie we’ve already seen way too many times. It’s not awful, just discouragingly familiar.

At heart it’s a monster yarn, but before it announces itself as the latest entry in that most overworked of genres, Abrams’ movie sets itself up as a sweet and funny story of adolescence.

As was the case with so many of those ‘80s films, Super 8 centers on a single-parent family. Young Joe Lamb (an excellent Joel Courtney) is hurting. His mom was recently killed in an industrial accident and his father Jackson (Kyle Chandler of TV’s Friday Night Lights) is a sheriff’s deputy ill at ease with the whole nurturing thing.

Happily Joe hangs with a bunch of dweeby fellow teens who make their own films with a Super 8 movie camera (the time is 1979, and Abrams cannily mines pop cultural references of the era — the newly introduced Walkman, George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead — as well as the general aura of pre-computer, pre-cellphone innocence among the young).

The Hitchcock of this merry, bickering band is the portly Charles (Riley Griffiths), who tends to talk in cliches that parody the cant of a “serious” movie shoot.

Adding a few lines of new (and awful) dialogue to a scene, Charles sees vast improvement: “See? It flows.”

During rehearsals he admonishes his pint-sized players to “save the real performance for when we’re filming.”

The cutup of the bunch is the motormouthed camera operator, Cary (Ryan Lee), whose massive braces make his mouth look like barbed wire fence.

Joe does makeup, a crucial gig on a zombie movie. And he’s thrilled out of his lovesick mind when Charles convinces the beautiful loner Alice (Elle Fanning) to play the wife of their movie’s police detective hero.

In one of the sweetest scenes you’ll see all year, Alice is required to cry in her very first shot and delivers such a heart-wrenching performance that the film crew can only stare in open-mouthed awe.

Alice is totally unaware of her impact on the boys. She snaps out of character as soon as Charles calls “Cut” and brightly asks if she did O.K.

Are you kidding? At that moment everyone watching Super 8 is hopelessly in love with this young actress.

Filming late one night at an old railroad depot on the outskirts of town, the crew witness a spectacular train derailment. In one of the overturned boxcars something big and powerful is trying to punch its way out.

Before you know it the tiny burg is overrun with uniformed types. Something is ripping electronic gear out of cars and appliances (we rarely get a good look at the critter, which has a vaguely spiderish form). Every dog in town runs away. People go missing.

And when his adored Alice is snatched, Joe must rise to the occasion, evading a military evacuation and tracking the beastie to its lair.

Super 8 will play extremely well with young viewers who may not be all that familiar with its antecedents. For them, it will seem all shiny and new.

Those of us more well-seasoned will be let down by Abrams’ reliance on overworked cliches. And while the Joe/Alice puppy love subplot is quite charming, at other times Abrams threatens to bring things to a near halt by indulging in way too much prepubescent angst.

And then there’s the creature, with which we’re supposed to sympathize despite the dead bodies it leaves behind. Doesn’t really work.

What does work is Abrams’ depiction of the giddy goofiness of early adolescence. Even if there were no monster at all, that would be a movie worth watching.

 

About the Author

Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.

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