Looking at the far-flung half-assery that has so far defined 2011's summer movie season, the thesis of J.J. Abrams' Super 8 may already be weighing heavily on moviegoers: They really just don't make them like they used to. It is a familiar refrain—more so after a week's worth of Super 8 reviews—but justified when putting today's ostensibly family-ready blockbusters up against the sort that Super 8 producer/godfather Steven Spielberg was releasing in the 1980s under his Amblin banner.
It is a generational thing on my part to hold E.T. or The Goonies up as watershed entertainments, and there are those who will insist the shine has come off in the meantime. But what was the last movie you saw that had that sort of spirit? Do we admit to ourselves, slogging through another summer of cynical retreads, that we maybe can't make them like we used to?
Abrams is the latest in a long line of variously qualified heirs apparent to Spielberg, so it is his opportunity to seize. (Best for everyone that Spielberg himself should spend a little extra time in the corner after Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.) The first and best choice he makes is the kids. The movie is set at the dawn of the 1980s in a small Ohio town, and our window into its events is an adorably motley crew of eighth-graders who sneak out late one summer night to work on their zombie movie and end up at the center of a mysterious train crash and subsequent military intervention.
It is novel to see a film about (and largely suitable for) preteens that feels as if an adult, with hindsight on the emotional rushes of childhood, took time to write it in the first place. Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) and his friends are so thoughtfully utilized as tween archetypes—and well-acted, particularly by a captivating Elle Fanning—that we're gripped by nostalgic empathy well before we're concerned with what's going on with Super 8 as a genre film.
When the danger does show up, it complements the tone. Though Super 8 is assuredly a fantastical film (there's little reason to elaborate further), its young players aren't wizards or werewolves; they're identifiably normal kids in high-stakes situations. Abrams does the Amblin name proud by keeping them at the center of the movie, whether they're fleeing fiery wreckage, bucking an evacuation, or exploring a deep, dark hole with only sparklers to light the way. With adult heroes it may have just been an action movie, but with kids it's a full-blown adventure.
The grown-ups, with the partial exception of Noah Emmerich's inscrutable Air Force heavy Col. Nemec, seem to slow Super 8 down anyway. Joe's lawman father (Kyle Chandler, hopefully not counting on a breakthrough role) helps keep the bigger picture in view, but is just as often used as emotional window-dressing. Abrams' script overindulges in a subplot about Joe's dead mother that has too little to do with everything else. (It's more like a super-loud Stand by Me than The Goonies in this sense.) Still, it wouldn't be much of a Spielberg homage if it didn't push it a bit with the syrupy stuff, and Super 8 hits those beats with redeeming grace.
As to whether the end product is true kin to the films its demographic grew up on, Super 8 gives it a tremendous go, and comes close. That it is a canny period piece doesn't hurt. Apart from a few requisite Blondie and ELO cues, there is an underlying timelessness to how well-realized it is—just as the home-movie camera of the title is a totem of both a specific era of the American middle class and the imaginative possibilities that led a teenage Steven Spielberg to pick up his own family camera 20 years earlier. The film's target audience is anyone who happens to have been a child at some point, and it is filled with the sort of thrills and wonder best filtered through those eyes.
But it is also filled with lens flares, as Abrams seems unafraid of transforming a calling card into a shtick. No dealbreaker there, but it is indicative of how Super 8 keeps one fail-safe foot in the summer of 2011. The film's undeniable sincerity is its biggest success as a tribute, but from the spectacle of the train crash to the third act's coy CG there is a slickness that limits its charms as a throwback. Is the problem irreconcilable? We may find out if anyone ever tries this hard again. If nothing else, this one terrifically satisfying attempt proves there's still some magic left.