“Super 8” written and directed by J.J. Abrams, 112 minutes, rated PG-13.
By now you know that J.J. Abrams is a master of mystery who thrives off of his audience’s willingness to participate, leaving them searching for clues hidden within the crevices of trailers, films or in some viral form. It’s become the norm for the writer-director-producer-keyboardist, and somehow it hasn’t gotten old.
As he draws us in by handing over the pieces to his next puzzle, we can never lose sight of Abrams’ abilities as a storyteller. Without that, his mysteries wouldn’t be any fun.
“Super 8,” Abrams’ latest film, happens to be both mysterious and fun. The movie is a slice of nostalgia paying homage to some of Spielberg’s earlier work – namely “E.T.” Joel Courtney, in his film debut, plays Joe Lamb, a young boy who recently lost his mother in the rural mill town of Lillian.
His father (Kyle Chandler), a deputy in town, can’t comprehend Joe’s fascination with movies, crafting models and monster makeup. He’d rather Joe spend his summer of ’79 at a sports camp, but Joe insists on staying to help his friends (Riley Griffiths, Ryan Lee, Zach Mills and Gabriel Basso) finish their 8mm zombie movie.
Most films find out the hard way that casting child actors is like playing with fire. This young cast, however, is about as good as it gets. All five of the boys have a surprising handle on their role, while displaying comic timing well beyond their years. Elle Fanning, who stars as Joe’s puppy-love interest, has acting built into her DNA. After all, her last name is Fanning.
One night while filming, Joe watches as a white pickup deliberately derails a train carrying Air Force cargo. It’s probably one of the most intense and abrupt, yet entertainingly drawn-out action scenes this summer. Although “Transformers” is still on deck.
The town isn’t the same after the crash. Dogs, people, and electronic appliances begin disappearing. The power supply becomes spotty, and the small town of Lillian is suddenly crawling with men in uniform. As the foreboding signs persist, the townspeople seek answers. So does the audience.
What exactly was that train carrying? Being left in the dark is half the fun.
The mystery that Abrams builds is a nice hook for viewers, but it’s his re-creation of a lost era where the director works his magic. As the kids plan their filming in secrecy – taking off on their bicycles late at night, using sparklers as a source of lighting and communicating through walkies-talkies – it’s as though Abrams is longing to return to simpler times.
In “Super 8,” he has found a time machine to transport audiences back to the whimsical days of their past. Like the scent of fresh-cut grass, “Super 8” is everything that summer stands for, and everything that a summer movie should be.