Here's a cinematic fun fact for you: The lineup of 2011 new releases includes a record 27 sequels or prequels, most of which have either hit the theaters in the last month or will do so before the summer is out. According to Box Office Mojo, that astonishing figure does not include films based on board games (Battleship) or toys (Stretch Armstrong). It does, however, include five films coming back for a fourth time, and five more returning in a fifth go-around. You know, just in case Final Destination 4 didn't tie up all the storylines.
So, yes, original stories are an endangered species in Hollywood these days, at least among the major studios. That doesn't mean they're extinct, but it does mean that when a good one comes along—like the recent gem Bridesmaids, and now Super 8—I'll admit to grading on a curve and giving points for creativity. An argument could be made that Super 8 isn't even all that original, borrowing themes and characters so heavily from other great sci-fi and coming-of-age dramas that you won't make it through the 110 minutes without thinking at least once about The Goonies, Stand By Me, Alien, E.T., and Independence Day. There's even an epic train crash and bus accident similar to the one in The Fugitive, except here there's a creepy and legitimately frightening extraterrestrial involved.
For the most part the similarities are incorporated with a friendly wink to these great films from decades ago. The film dazzles with its production quality, but writer and director J.J. Abrams also reminds a new generation of viewers about the value of story and suspense in a summer blockbuster. Without it you're left with just loud noises and explosions, otherwise known as Transformers 3. And it's not as if Steven Spielberg is going to raise a stink about being plagiarized in Super 8; he's one of the producers here.
It's fun to imagine Abrams and Spielberg waxing nostalgic as they storyboarded Super 8, set in the summer of 1979 in a small working-class Ohio town, where a group of young teenagers have planned their vacation around finishing a home-made zombie movie using a Super 8 film camera. There's the sensitive lead kid (Joe), the fat but smart kid (Charles), the nervous kid (Martin), the kid with braces (Cary), and the girl (Alice). It's almost a carbon copy of The Goonies cast, minus the Asian kid, but no matter. This cast is just as great.
The amateur filmmakers are mid-take when the horrific train accident unfolds in front of them, and the convoys of military personnel that descend on the scene within minutes are a good indication that there may have been some sensitive cargo on board. Within days, dozens of people have gone missing, power lines are disappearing, and every dog in the town has run away. It's up to Joe's father, the recently widowed deputy sheriff Jackson Lamb (the fantastic Kyle Chandler, best known as the coach from "Friday Night Lights") to figure out what the Air Force is trying to cover up.
Except that in Super 8, it's the kids who really know what's going on. That doesn't mean they want to know. Thankfully, the film avoids regressing into some sort of "Scooby Doo" episode where the teenagers follow each clue to the next. To the contrary, even as the crisis envelops the town, the group's main focus remains filming their movie and getting shots of the train wreck. This is so endearingly true to the instinct of 14-year-old boys that I'm willing to overlook the predictable puppy-love scenes between Joe and Alice (Elle Fanning) that act as real momentum killers on more than one occasion.
Fanning is great, but it's the performances by newcomers Joel Courtney (Joe) and Riley Griffiths (Charles) that are astonishingly authentic, and which help Super 8 maintain its suspense as we slowly learn more and more about the train's mysterious passenger. As is often the case in sci-fi thrillers, the best scenes are the ones in which we only hear or catch small glimpses of the non-humanoid. The big reveal is a bit silly, as is the back story that we learn about in more detail than necessary. But the human element of Super 8—matched with some of the best special effects and sound editing you'll see and hear this year—is such that you'll find yourself more involved than you might care to admit.
It's manipulative, but I can't criticize Abrams too much for it, and I don't hate myself for falling into the trap. Even as Super 8 unabashedly rips-off E.T. in its final moments, the 12-year-old in me is nodding gleefully.
Super 8 continues at the Carmike 10.