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Close Encounters of the Amblin Kind

MOVIE REVIEW
Super 8 (2011)

Super-8-zach-mills-elle-fanning-riley-griffiths-ryan-lee-joel-courtney plays Joe Lamb-gabriel-basso
François Duhamel/Paramount Pictures

Paramount has engaged in a meticulous secrecy campaign with its marketing of “Super 8,” the latest directorial effort from writer-director-producer-all-around-mogul J. J. Abrams. Its trailers and other promotional spots reveal little beyond the promise of a nostalgic return to Amblin-style family entertainment.

It’s a smart, effective tactic for drumming up interest in the summer’s first major release that’s not a sequel, comic-book installment or the latest film off the lucrative Judd Apatow assembly line. It’s also a bit self-destructive, creating the promise and expectation of some sort of big, earth-shattering narrative with a major M. Night Shyamalan-at-his-best caliber surprise that’d have been frankly impossible for Mr. Abrams, given the tenor of what he was working on.

If “Super 8” in some respects disappoints by not offering all that, it’s nonetheless a fine return to a style of innocently adventuresome filmmaking (think “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial” or “The Goonies”) that’s largely fallen victim to quick cuts, shaky cams and product placement. It’s Mr. Abrams’s most emotional film, an earnest tribute to his youthful passion for Super 8 moviemaking rendered on the canvas of a full-throttle alien-conspiracy picture.

With a cast of young teens given smart, naturalistic dialogue — as well as the chance to play three-dimensional characters rather than shallow archetypes — the picture offers an immersive return to the wonders of small-town rust-belt youth in 1979, a time in which kids played outside, got into trouble and exercised their brains rather than their thumbs.

Shy protagonist Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney, a revelation in his first role) has just lost his mother and depends on his friends for support, rather than his absentee sheriff’s deputy father Jackson (Kyle Chandler). They share one passion above all else: filmmaking.

Gregarious budding moviemaker Charles (Riley Griffiths) has written a Super 8 zombie movie. One night he rounds up Joe, the rest of the group and newcomer/lead actress Alice Dainard (Elle Fanning) for a journey to their town’s train station, where they will surreptitiously shoot a big scene. During this most dramatic of moments, they are interrupted by a train crash that spreads debris across a wide swath of countryside and spurs an ever-deepening supernatural mystery that threatens to engulf their blue-collar home of Lillian, Ohio.

Mr. Abrams offers superb wide-screen visuals that are enhanced by the swelling, fanciful Michael Giacchino score and an appealing mix of old-fashioned sentimentality and full-throttle action. The filmmaker smartly stresses the relationships first, benefiting from the mature performances offered by the remarkably understated, charismatic Ms. Fanning and Mr. Courtney. The otherworldly experience forced upon Joe and his fellow denizens of Lillian is framed as a coming-of-age facilitator. The crisis spurs the forming of new bonds, while old connections are reinforced and given new meaning as characters come to terms with deep emotional wounds.

The character-driven stuff resonates far more than its alien narrative counterpart. Only sporadically does Mr. Abrams cogently interweave the closely-observed personal stories with the top-secret mystery that’s wreaked havoc on Lillian and brought shady government officials to town. The film settles into a bifurcated structure that oscillates between those two inspirations with a heavy hand. Naturally bereft of the humor, emotion and convincing dialogue of the memoir elements, the grandiose extraterrestrial government conspiracy story needed to be a suspenseful humdinger just to keep up.

At best, though, it’s no more than a mild entertainment, a distraction from the heart of Mr. Abrams’s enterprise. Sure, the filmmaker proves again (as he did in the “Lost” pilot) that he knows how to make a big, destructive set piece pulsate with life. There’s pleasure to be had in watching the town grapple with some utterly perplexing disappearances and strange turns of events.

But at the end of the day, “Super 8” is really about the thrill a young Mr. Abrams must have felt when he and his buddies discovered films and filmmaking, awakening in them that ancient drive to tell stories. Amid the linoleum diners, beside the rusting industrial plants and across the faded main drags of its Ohio setting, the film observes the creation of young artists and chronicles their first steps to adulthood. That’s what really means something.

SUPER 8

Opens on June 10 in the United States and on Aug. 5 in the United Kingdom.

Written and directed by J. J. Abrams; director of photography, Larry Fong; edited by Maryann Brandon and Mary Jo Markey; music by Michael Giacchino; production design by Martin Whist; costumes by Ha Nguyen; produced by Steven Spielberg, Mr. Abrams and Bryan Burk; released by Paramount Pictures. Running time: 1 hour 52 minutes. This film is rated PG-13 by M.P.A.A. and 12A by B.B.F.C.

WITH: Kyle Chandler (Jackson Lamb), Elle Fanning (Alice Dainard), Joel Courtney (Joe Lamb), Gabriel Basso (Martin), Noah Emmerich (Nelec), Ron Eldard (Louis Dainard), Riley Griffiths (Charles), Ryan Lee (Cary), Zach Mills (Preston) and Glynn Turman (Dr. Woodward).

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