J.J. Abrams's latest film is a heartfelt homage to early Spielberg
It's been five years now since Paramount Pictures chairman Brad Grey first anointed writer/producer/director J.J. Abrams "the next Steven Spielberg." That honorific has subsequently become so commonplace that Abrams might be forgiven if he'd put it on his business cards. But it always seemed to me a clear devaluation of the Spielbergian coin. Abrams's accomplishments on the little screen (Felicity, Alias, Lost) and endeavors on the big one (M:i: III, Star Trek) are all well and good. But Spielberg? Honestly?
Steven Spielberg himself, however, seems not to share this skepticism. At least that's the impression given by his decision to produce Abrams's latest film, Super 8. The movie is a touchingly self-conscious homage to early Spielberg, to Jaws and Close Encounters and E.T., and if it's not at the level of those films, neither does it embarrass itself with the comparison. By turns hokey and suspenseful, intimate and exhilarating, it is a delightful reminder that summer cinema is not required by statute to be crass and loud and stupid.
The movie takes place in 1979, a time when Spielberg was at the height of his pop powers (at least if one discounts 1941, released that year), and J.J. Abrams was in middle school. Not at all coincidentally, the film's protagonists are themselves middle-schoolers; moreover, like Abrams, who began shooting movies on a Super 8 camera when he was 8 years old, they are budding amateur filmmakers: Joe (Joel Courtney), the sensitive makeup artist and model-builder; Alice (Elle Fanning), the reluctant leading lady from the wrong side of the tracks; Charles (Riley Griffiths), the bossy, rotund writer/director; and Cary (Ryan Lee), the heavily dental-braced fireworks fiend. Along with a few castmates, the kids are shooting night scenes for a Z-grade zombie movie when they witness a devastating train derailment and the emergence of a mysterious, predatory menace. It's not long before the sheriff in their fictional Ohio steel town disappears, local dogs make a run for the county line, and a secretive military battalion arrives to "clean up" the undisclosed threat.