*Super 8 (PG-13)
Carmike 10, Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Cinemark 16 IMAX, Hollywood Interquest, Tinseltown
Give J. J. Abrams credit for having stones the size of bowling balls, because he practically gift-wraps the pike on which his science-fiction thriller Super 8 could be skewered. Early in the film, aspiring middle-school filmmaker Charles (Riley Griffiths) explains to his pal, Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney), why he's added new scenes to the zombie movie they're shooting with Charles' Super-8 camera. It can't be just about the creatures Charles quotes from screenwriting books; you have to care about the characters so that you want them to live. Wink, wink. Nudge, nudge.
Then, for much of the first hour, Abrams delivers exactly what he knows we need, introducing the residents of small-town Lillian, Ohio circa 1979. He sets up the tragic death of Joe's mother in a steel-mill accident, leaving him in the care of his father (Kyle Chandler), a sheriff's deputy who doesn't know nearly enough about his son as a person.
He establishes a loose, enjoyable dynamic between Charles, Joe and the other members of their film-crew posse, and he brings an almost effortless charm to Joe's crush on classmate Alice (Elle Fanning), newly recruited to act in Charles' movie. The kids are so money that for around 45 minutes, I thought I was watching one for the ages.
But eventually it comes time for them to encounter ... something. It begins with a magnificently staged train derailment near the depot where they're shooting a scene. The kids barely escape the apocalypse of raining boxcars, and film of the incident could put their lives in jeopardy. As the town is plagued by weirdness like disappearing dogs, there's still plenty of opportunity for the story to remain an adventure involving these tweens.
But little distractions keep tugging Super 8 away from what should be its focus. Abrams drops signifiers of his time period without providing a compelling reason for why this story needed to be a period piece, other than a nostalgic reference to the early-period youth-oriented fantasy adventures of executive producer Steven Spielberg. He turns nearly every scene into an opportunity to showcase his trademark visual fillip, adding bright blue lens flares to the Spielbergian under-the-chin awestruck-reaction shot. He provides a tragic tension between Joe's father and Alice's alcoholic dad (Ron Eldard), which feels like extra sentimental baggage.
And it's maddening, because Super 8 keeps circling around the stuff that could have made it a classic. One gem of a scene finds Alice in full zombie makeup, practicing her blank-eyed undead shamble toward Joe. She's got him transfixed as she leans in for his neck, leaving a smudge of lipstick. Abrams brilliantly captures the ambiguity of early adolescent romantic longing that's also absolutely terrifying.
There's enough of that stuff that Super 8 never devolves completely into rote genre action. Yet the more Abrams pulls the focus toward the hows and whys of his monster, the less uniquely charming the film becomes. And as Joe's story seems to build inevitably toward making peace with his dad, you begin to appreciate even more the subtlety with which Spielberg handled Elliot's fatherlessness in E.T.
The deft touch that marks so many of Super 8's best moments keeps getting knocked aside by a heavy hand. When Abrams gets away from the strengths of his own story, he turns it into something merely pretty good, instead of the kind of movie other filmmakers will be referencing to a generation from now.