Back in Time: J.J. Abrams Celebrates Amateur Filmmaking

City Pulse | June 6, 2011
Sure to inspire a new generation of youngsters to pick up video cameras and start making their own movies, "Super 8" is an intentionally restrained monster movie that plays the heartstrings of its young characters against a nostalgic brand of filmic suspense. Dakota Fanning's more talented younger sister Elle steals the show as Alice Dainard, a young thespian called upon to act in a Super 8 movie being made by four preteen classmates in small-town Ohio, circa 1979. Alice's "mint" performance, during a touching nighttime love scene with her adolescent private investigator "husband" on a train platform, is interrupted by a terrible train crash. Charles (played with goofy aplomb by Riley Griffiths) is a child director with Hitchcock aspirations and an effective verbal command of the director's idiom. Charles's make-up assistant pal Joe (Joel Courtney) recently lost his mother in a factory accident. Joe's town-sheriff dad Jackson (Kyle Chandler) has his hands full dealing with the fallout of the enormous train crash that attracts a team of Army and CIA officials for a top secret clean-up operation. There's an escaped alien creature on the loose.

Writer/director J.J. Abrams ("Star Trek") is clearly having fun with playing two entertaining ends against the middle. On one side is the recreational zombie movie the kids are making to submit to a local film festival. Wait through the closing credits to watch their finished Super 8 product. On the other hand is the big budget sci-fi monster movie Abrams teases out as an homage to B-movies of the '50s. We don't even get a good look at the giant alien monster until the third act. The heart of the story lies in the budding romance between Alice and Joe in spite of the vociferous disapproval of their diametrically opposed fathers. "Super 8" is a cool kids' movie made by young-minded adults who haven't lost their sense of inspiration for the magic of making movies from a child's perspective. Anything seems possible. If J.J. Abrams errs on the side of producer Steven Spielberg's wide-eyed brand of cinematic cheese (think "E.T.") it comes as a forgivable flaw. Less forgivable is letting Elle Fanning's character slip out of the plot for two too many scenes.

"Super 8" does not benefit from the tightest editing. There are moments when the story stalls. A seemingly significant plot point involving thousands of mysterious little white heavy metal cubes goes largely unexplained. When contact is finally made with the alien creature, there isn't enough character development for the monster to enable much empathy. The list of quibbles goes on. These would-be deal breaking elements earn forgiveness due to the context of the overall narrative setting, which involves the unbridled joy of recreational filmmaking. Such enjoyment isn't such an old-fashioned idea after all.

Rated PG-13. 112 mins. (B) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)

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