I saw this when as a fluke. My pal McHatin and I were supposed to see an advance screening of Green Lantern and were within site of the box office when they announced it was sold out. Unlike the disastrous preview of The Hangover Pt. 2 we'd been shut out of a few weeks back, the theater generously offered free admission to anything showing within the next hour. Since I was on a tight schedule, leaving for Toronto in the morning for NXNE, we chose the movie starting at the same time as our preview was supposed to: J.J. Abrams' homage to Spielberg, Super 8.
Set in 1979, it follows Joel Courtney (me neither), a 13-year-old boy whose mother was killed in a steel mill accident, leaving him alone with his distracted sheriff deputy father who can't relate to his kid's interest in filmmaking. Joel and his classmates are making a Super 8 zombie movie and Joel provides the makeup effects. (That he's not the director is a different angle than you'd expect.) When the director asks Elle Fanning, a classmate, to join the project as a love interest, a smitten Joel is agog. However, there is something regarding her drunken white trash father and his possible responsibility for Joel's mom's death hovering over them.
While filming a scene at a train station at night, they witness their high school science teacher cause a MASSIVE - it's like something from Transformers - train derailment, barely escaping harm. They can't understand why he did it, but when the military arrives in force and weird things, from people disappearing to cars engines on a sales lot going missing, lead them to guess that something escaped from the train. (They must've seen the trailer.) Is it the monster from Cloverfield or what?
Super 8 is two movies, one of which is very good and interesting; the other tacked on in such half-hearted fashion that it almost feels as if Abrams sabotages himself in self-loathing for having to put it in to satisfy modern studio demands for BIG ACTION. The part focusing on the kids is quiet and well-played. The look of Spielberg films of that era like Close Encounters and E.T. is aped well (with a dose of lens flare to get the Abrams-haters knickers in a twist), but it's the performances of young actors born over a quarter-century later that makes it work. (There are a lot of hideous sideburns on display. It looks more 1974 to me, but whatever.)
The monster stuff doesn't work as well. We never get a decent look at it until the end and the whole aspect of what it is and how the Evil Military is abusing the poor thing that just wants to steal enough junk and kill enough people to get home is hackneyed. The connection of the science teacher to the creature is laughable and handled in a clumsy voiceover that made McHatin chirp, "Message!" Remember when the U.S. military were portrayed as heroes in Spielberg movies? Apparently he doesn't. Lazy, stupid, and distracting. It's just that a small film about filmmaking kids is impossible to sell to summer audiences, but you can tell where Abrams heart was because it's called Super 8 and not Train Monster.
The breakout performance here is Elle Fanning, previously known best for being Dakota's little sister who played the younger versions of Dakota's characters. (Look at her IMDB page for yourself.) While Dakota has always been good, though throwing off a bit of a Jodie FosterBot 2.0 vibe, Elle made me think of Michelle Pfeiffer or Charlize Theron which for a girl who was only 12(!) when this movie was made is amazing. She's definitely one to watch.
While Super 8 is a bit of a muddle, the parts that work more than overpower the fluff that doesn't. Also, there's a nifty bonus movie during the end credits!
Score: 8/10. Catch a matinee.