One of the best boys’ middle-school movies since “Lord of the Flies.” Surely the most cinematic of the mass-market blockbusters yet released this summer. And a welcome return of the smoky, massive-object-hurling imagination that we so loved in “Lost.” J.J. Abrams’ “Super 8” opens as a haunting, slice-of-life art movie, kin to the early sequences in “The Deer Hunter,” and winds up in a very different and much less interesting place. This is not a great movie, nor even an old-school Spielberg mind-blower, but who cares? If you have 112 minutes to kill, you’ll get your money’s worth, with full-body flashbacks to 1979 thrown in for free.
Connoisseurs of male adolescent sneaking-out will find much to enjoy here. A gang of five boys is shooting a no-budget zombie flick on Super 8. The red-cheeked director (Riley Griffiths), who dismayingly resembles Krundt at 13, enlists an actual girl (Elle Fanning) to provide the love interest. They shoot after their parents are asleep, communicate by walkie-talkie, drive without licenses, smash and steal – all without diminishing their choir-boy appeal. Ryan Lee deserves special mention as an explosives expert with buck teeth and braces.
Shooting after midnight at an isolated train station, they witness a spectacular train wreck. Next thing you know, the Air Force has taken over their Ohio town, paranoia sets in, heavy objects are hurled, machinery stolen, and people plucked into the darkness by a dimly-seen phantasm that evokes happy memories of the Smoke Monster in “Lost.”
For me, the best moment is when Joel Courtney, the director’s best friend, first touches Fanning. As makeup artist for the kids’ movie, he’s duty-bound to apply cosmetics to her face. It’s not just business for him, though, and maybe not for Fanning. As he gently dabs Fanning’s face with a sponge – actually in physical contact with her! – you know what he’s feeling.
In contrast to “Lost,” the story here makes sense, and is poorer for it. Spielberg, whose post-“Jaws” monsters are often relatable sweetie-pies just like us, may have over-trained his protégé Abrams. Stranded in a coherent universe, Abrams consoles himself by tossing junk around.
The movie-within-a-movie device backfires. Griffiths, who reads magazines about film making, explains that introducing a love interest into a story makes people care more. Once that line has been uttered, we’re ejected into a post-modern meta-space of self-conscious distance from the main story: We’re forced into awareness of how the film makers are manipulating us. We recognize Fanning — so compelling, so watchable — as a device rather than as a person. Suspension of disbelief evaporates, just as the smoke dissipates and the make- believe monster comes into view. No doubt the filmmakers are having fun, but we’ve been severed from our capacity to care.
Not that it matters. Abrams has a gift for popular entertainment. We’re engrossed, amused, even stupefied. What more can you expect from a movie ticket?