As far as big budget studio tent poles go, Hollywood as been on something of a roll this year. Of the major summer releases, only two (Pirates of the Caribbean 4 and The Hangover II) have earned mostly negative reviews. Yet even though other big movies like Thor and X-Men: First Class have been warmly welcomed, nothing from the big summer roster has deserved its positive reception more than JJ Abrams' Super 8.
Executive produced by Steven Spielberg, Abrams' story wears its influences proudly on its sleeve. All in all, it's something of a mish-mash of The Goonies, ET, and the Abrams-produced Cloverfield. However, in spite of the blatant references and thematic homages, Super 8 manages to stand on its own two legs. To say that a film evokes the 80s is a statement that one could easily take for a sarcastic insult, but in terms of youth-oriented adventure tales, that statement is one of the highest praise, and it most certainly applies to this film. It's rare to find hopeful blockbusters that fit so comfortable inside the PG-13 rating, but this is one such film. At its core, it is both a monster movie and coming-of-age story. We see a group of kids, led by Joe (Joel Courtney) and Charles (Riley Griffiths), something of a pre-adolescent, zombie-loving Orson Welles. There's also Alice Dainard (Elle Fanning), as a tough wrong-side-of-the-tracks girl who Charles enlists to help him make his latest monster movie. Along with a small handful of others, these kids are bound by a secret. While trying to shoot a scene for their movie (which Ms. Fanning nails as both an actress and as a character trying to be an actress), they witness a stunning train crash, and believe that someone or something escaped in the aftermath.
And for the first half of its 1 hr 50 min running time, Abrams lets events unfold with note-perfect pacing. With crisp pacing, a nice use of humor, and genuinely effective thrills, Super 8 covers the different angles (monster movie, adventure, pre-teen romance) with great skill and efficiency. Even when it becomes obvious that a scene is about to turn into an attack by the mysterious escapee, the jolts the movie produces are wonderfully well-earned, and devoid of obnoxious music trying to create tension. Super 8 doesn't need a score for its thrilling moments, because Abrams' "monster" remains unseen and unexplained for so much of the film. The attack sequences earn most of their suspense merely from the sheer amount of what the audience doesn't know.
And even though these attacks, at first, happen to characters we don't know or care about, the ensemble of young actors do a fine job of creating a sympathetic and enjoyable group of characters to follow. Mr. Courtney, Mr. Griffiths, and Ms. Fanning in particular do wonderful work in their roles, and scene with Courtney and Fanning together produces possibly the only genuine moment of heart that any summer blockbuster has offered up so far. These are not necessarily full-fleshed out characters, but even the simple touches that Abrams and his actors lend the roles feels so much more authentic than what your typical action/adventure flick is able to muster up.
Unfortunately, Super 8 is a film that starts stronger than it ends. Where the first hour is a perfect balance of character, mystery, humor, and thrills, the second hour starts to rush things along. The more we see of the monster (eventually leading up to plenty of shots that show it in its entirety), the less fearsome it becomes. So even though the second half may boast the film's best sequence (involving an attack on a bus), the big reveal just leaves us with a rather generic creature, with a back story that's quite ordinary. And the closer the film draws to its ending, the more events happen with a degree of convenience towards the plot. I was more than willing to forgive the fact that Alice's car (technically her father's) is left virtually unscathed after the film's stunning train crash. That was merely a blip amid a sequence of events with near perfect pacing and editing. Less acceptable was the snap decision of Joe's father (Kyle Chandler) to suddenly go rogue in a quest for the truth, or the speed with which Joe and his friends are able to obtain help from a local stoner. There is, on a less objectionable note, also a too-fast-for-its-own-good cut that rushes several characters from point A to point B just so that the film can jump straight to its final shot. For a film that starts off with such swift, and yet perfectly balanced pacing, this sudden jump to the nearly dialogue-free ending came as a rather unpleasant shock.
In the grand scheme of the film, however, these issues do not detract from the film to the point of rendering it a mixed bag. This is wonderful entertainment with just the right amount of heart, without ever resorting to schmaltz. It also resists the temptation to create an increasingly bombastic finale. Yes, one sequence does involve the discharge of some serious fire power, but Abrams captures it with such simplicity, never resorting to the Michael Bay tactic of shoving the destruction in your face. It keeps the mayhem confined as to how it directly affects our characters, whether they live, die, or suffer injuries. So even though its ending may be too simple for its own good, Super 8 is a remarkable rarity among summer blockbusters. For whatever cliches and shortcuts the script may have, it remains a work with genuine thrills, a lively (but never obtrusive) sense of humor and playfulness, and an understanding of the fact that emotions and explosions can exist side-by-side.