J.J. Abrams’ Super 8 isn't Spielberg but it's good

A loving homage that never lives up to its inspiration.

The marketing for Super 8 hinges on the fact that the movie is written and directed by rising star J.J. Abrams (Star Trek, Mission Impossible: III) and takes as its inspiration the (mostly early) work of Steven Spielberg (who serves as its producer). But to call Super 8 a "Spielberg movie" is to undershoot. It's not a Spielberg movie, it's all of them at once: a mash-up of Jaws, Close Encounters, E.T. and Jurassic Park, with an extra helping of the Spielberg-produced The Goonies slapped on top. As the film unspools, Abrams proves himself capable of hitting many of the same notes as the aging boomer master, but never matches the overall power of his inspiration.

Super 8 is set in the Spielbergian heyday of 1979, and stars Joel Courtney as a young teen named Joe whose mother has just been killed in an accident at the steel plant where she worked. The kid's dad, Jackson (Kyle Chandler), is a good man — the local deputy sheriff, no less — but completely unprepared for the double whammy of losing his beloved wife and having to raise his kid alone. Joe was a bit of a mama's boy, and father and son don't get each other. When Jackson offers to send Joe to six weeks of sleepaway baseball camp, Joe says he'd rather stay in town for the summer doing the makeup and building models for the zombie movie his friend Charles (Riley Griffiths) is making.

If you caught the excellent trailer for Super 8, you basically know what comes next. Joe, Charles and their friends (played by a quality roster of young actors, including Elle Fanning, Ryan Lee and Zach Mills) sneak out to a train station in the dead of night and are shooting their movie when a train spectacularly derails and the camera captures — something. For brevity’s sake I'll call it a monster, though Super 8 provides a much more thorough explanation.

The military moves in, led by the obviously up-to-no-good Nelec (Noah Emmrich), with plans to catch the escaped creature, which is mysteriously collecting the residents of the suburban Ohio town in which the film is set — plus most of their household appliances. Why? You didn't really expect me to tell you, right? This being a J.J. Abrams production, the film offers tantalizing mysteries along the way — What's with the weird cubes that spilled out of the train? Why does Jackson hate the town drunk (well played by Ron Eldard)? What's the deal with a locket Joe carries? — and even bothers to tie up all the loose ends.

Much like Spielberg, Abrams proves himself adept at teasing out greatish performances from his child stars, most notably Courtney and Fanning, and allows the film to hit touchstones of adolescence that a lesser movie would have skipped in favor of more explosions. There's tenderness and heart here, but aside from the theater-rattling train wreck, there really isn’t any sense of wonder — and wonder is what early Spielberg movies are all about.

Abrams' shooting style lacks the play of light and color that illuminate Spielberg's best work, the creature (once finally glimpsed) is a disappointment and yet another riff on the Cloverfield monster, and the movie is never really as emotionally resonant as it thinks it is (especially during the very Spielbergian would-be tearjerker ending).

So yeah, Super 8 can't wipe the ass of a Jaws or E.T., but it’s unfair to hold Abrams' flick to that standard. Back in Spielberg's late-'70s glory days, it would have been the weak half of a drive-in's double feature. But in 2011 it'll end up as one of the better blockbusters of the summer.