DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
J.J. Abrams is best known for creating or co-creating the TV series "Felicity," "Alias," and "Lost," and for directing the 2009 movie remake of "Star Trek." His new big-screen, sci-fi thriller, "Super 8," is co-produced by Steven Spielberg, who directed some of the films that most inspired Abrams.
Film critic David Edelstein has this review.
DAVID EDELSTEIN: It would be easy to malign J.J. Abrams' "Super 8" as a shameless rip-off of Steven Spielberg's "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," "E.T." and "Jurassic Park" - that is, if Abrams didn't rekindle at least some of the excitement of seeing those films way back when.
We didn't just consume "Close Encounters" and "E.T." like so much disposable pop culture. We were dazzled by a new mode of storytelling, accessible to all, and yet personal and pure, the product of one visionary dreamer.
But then came the Spielberg imitations, some produced by Spielberg's company, and his name became a dirty word. Oh, no, not more lame Spielberg kiddie mush. Even Spielberg finally got the message, and began to direct prestige movies.
Now he has co-produced "Super 8," and because 25 years have elapsed, we can savor it without having nightmarish flashbacks to "The Goonies." And though "Super 8" isn't in the same league as its models, it still hits home the way all the impersonal franchise pictures out there don't.
It's called "Super 8" because it's set in the '70s, pre-home video. And its adolescent characters are shooting a ragtag zombie flick at an isolated Ohio railroad station when the kid director spots a train heading their way, and realizes he can exploit it by rushing the shot, a goodbye scene between a detective and his wife. Then young Joe Lamb, played by Joel Courtney, sees a pickup truck veering onto the tracks, heading straight for the onrushing train.
(Soundbite of movie, "Super 8")
(Soundbite of crowd chatter)
Mr. JOEL COURTNEY (Actor): (as Joe Lamb) I want collision. Collision. Ready. Start filming the action live when the train passes by. Here we go. And action.
Unidentified Woman: (as character) John, I don't like it, this case, these murders.
Unidentified Man: (as character) What do you want me to do? Go to Michigan with you?
Unidentified Woman: (as character) Mackinac Island is beautiful this time of year.
(Soundbite of train engine)
Unidentified Woman: (as character) I think you're in danger.
Unidentified Man: (as character) I don't have a choice.
Unidentified Woman: (as character) You do have a choice. John, I've never asked you to stop. I need to know this isn't the last time I'm going to see you. I love you so much.
Unidentified Man: (as character) I love you, too.
Mr. COURTNEY: (as Joe Lamb) Guys, watch out.
Unidentified Man: (as character) Joe, what the hell are you...
(Soundbite of crashing)
(Soundbite of yelling)
Mr. COURTNEY: (as Joe Lamb) Oh, my God. Run.
Unidentified Man: (as character) Oh, my God.
(Soundbite of crashing)
EDELSTEIN: That crash is amazing - the explosions go on and on, and mammoth pieces of metal crash down at decibel levels no '80s movie could reach. The pickup-truck driver, miraculously alive, tells the kids to run or be killed. The Air Force shows up, hunting what looks to be big and lethal, and might or might not involve nukes. People and pets disappear.
And here, I'll stop. Abrams has the storytelling savvy to keep you guessing from scene to scene, so it's criminal even to reveal the nature of the mystery.
I can tell you the theme. Joe lost his mom in an industrial accident. His deputy father's a non-presence, and the girl he has a crush on, Alice, played by Elle Fanning, has a drunken single dad who had something to do with Joe's mother's death. So you have absent mothers and impotent or cruel fathers, and the Air Force officers turn out to be the cruelest patriarchal authorities of all. Joe and Alice and their pals race around doing what their parents won't or can't - solving the mystery and finally making contact with an entity that has its own authority issues.
The kids' repartee isn't particularly witty, but Courtney is likably unaffected, and Fanning, younger sister of Dakota, has that familiar freaky, grown-up pale face and blue eyes. But Abrams misses a huge opportunity with the chubby director of the zombie movie. For easy laughs, the kid is inept, in the Ed Wood mode, whereas if he had the talent of, say, a young Spielberg, we could have seen a connection between the emotional upheaval of childhood and a child's burgeoning filmmaking skills.
At least J.J. Abrams makes you feel his enthusiasm. He was of the age to have been influenced by "Jaws" and "Close Encounters," and my guess is he's been fighting not to reproduce Spielberg's signature moves since he picked up a camera. Now, with the blessing of the master, he can plagiarize with alacrity. He can use sudden silence to make us laugh out loud at the prospect of being jolted out of our seats. He can film the starry heavens to make us instantly aware of all the mysteries of the universe we force ourselves to forget just to get on with our days.
In "Super 8," the magic of those older movies filters through like light from a distant star.
BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine.
(Soundbite of music)
BIANCULLI: You can join us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter @nprfreshair. And you can download podcasts of our show at freshair.npr.org.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.