I dare you to say that you're not curious about Super 8, J.J. Abrams's 1979-set film about a group of kids who witness a spectacular train crash. The film has generated a lot of hype for what it doesn't show in trailers and promos, and it's the mystery that's the big draw. The previews do reveal that something escapes the crash and then stalks and terrorizes a small Midwestern town, which Abrams uses as a premise for a sentimental, nostalgia-filled portrait of a group of boys making a movie.
Joel Courtney leads the charge as Joe, a sensitive boy who has just lost his mother in an accident. He and his newly widowed father (Kyle Chandler) are figuring out how to get along with each other without the woman of the house while dealing with their grief. Joe's group of buds help distract him from his home life, as they fill their Summer vacation by making a movie for an amateur film festival. When they're filming a climactic scene near the train tracks, they watch — and film — an intense accident that has some pretty distressing repercussions. With Steven Spielberg on hand as producer, Super 8 often feels like one of his classic sci-fi standbys, but it's just not quite as memorable. However, it's still a fun, heart-pumping ride (the train crash is one of the best action sequences I've seen in a long time). To find out what else I thought, just read more.
The movie owes a great deal of its charm to its disarming young cast. They're wonderfully drawn: there's bossy director Charles, firework-loving Cary, hopeful actor Preston and wide-eyed Martin. Their all-boy dynamic is unsettled when they add a girl to the cast, and Alice (Elle Fanning) shakes up the production with her sophistication and impressive acting skills. She also represents an element of growing up; the boys are on the verge of discovering girls, but the movie doesn't push it any farther than the first blush of a crush. It's very innocent in that way; ultimately, Alice, Joe's mother's death, and the ensuing crisis become key factors in the boys' coming of age.
Abrams is a master of the creepy buildup. Mysterious objects show up in the train crash, the town's dogs run away, electronics go missing. Then, while you're trying to figure out what it all means, he brings out the thriller as the monster begins attacking unsuspecting townspeople. Unfortunately, Abrams isn't a master of follow-through, and there are many loose ends that never get tied up.
Super 8's other shortcoming is in its inability to choose a distinct genre; it wavers between coming-of-age tale, a monster movie, and then a family drama. But, this is still a highly entertaining movie. It's worth it to see for the buoyant sense of humor and the jaw-dropping, spine-chilling moments, even if it doesn't quite live up to expectations.