After I left my screening of Super 8, writer/director JJ Abrams' slavish homage to the late-'70s/early-'80s oeuvre of executive producer Steven Spielberg, I mentioned to a friend that it didn't wow me like I'd hoped. He responded, "Is that because you're not ten years old?"
And therein, I think, lies the heart of my reaction to the film: for as proficient and practiced a production as it is (and yeah, it is), I'm not ten anymore. It's possible that, for an audience that hasn't seen E.T. or The Goonies or Gremlins or any of the multitudinous other sources from which Abrams has dutifully cribbed his every character and every story beat, this might mark an experience like no other. But I have, and thus, it can't help but not be.
This isn't a bad movie by any stretch -- far from it, in fact -- but it lacks the willingness (or perhaps simply the desire) to truly transcend its genre trappings and say something new. Instead, it's content with playing out its running time as a kind of "greatest hits" package of the hoary tropes that so typified Spielberg's output from that period (both as a director and a producer), and which Abrams, and I, and many others, can credit with setting so many of our cinematic touchstones.
The "Super 8" of the title comes from the filmmaking hobby of the plucky young pre-teens who comprise our core group of protagonists, each armed with a handy tic to make them easy to identify. Look, there's Charles: he's the film nerd who expresses excitement by saying "mint!" a lot. Hey, it's Cary: the kid with the big braces who likes to blow things up. And there's Martin: the nebbish who spontaneously pukes whenever he gets nervous, etc. The primary young leads are Joe (Joel Courtney), the modelmaker who recently lost his mother to an industrial accident, and Alice (Elle Fanning), Joe's unrequited love who's complicated-but-we-don't-know-why.
Following the derailing of an air force cargo train near the kids' project (in an onslaught of pyrotechnics that would make Michael Bay proud), the small Ohio hamlet in which they live is beset with small electrical devices going missing, then entire engine blocks from cars, then pets, and eventually people. Once the air force (personified by the mysterious Col. Nelec, played by Noah Emmerich) shows up to run damage control (mainly involving lots and lots of flame-throwers), it's up to the town's deputy, Joe's father Jack (Kyle Chandler) to save the town from threats both foreign and domestic -- all the while patching up his tattered relationship with his estranged son and working out his unresolved differences with Alice's alcoholic father (Ron Eldard), who harbors a dark secret of his own.
Oh, and there may or may not be an alien space monster involved that may or may not look like the unfortunate aftermath of a pairing between Spielberg's E.T. and Abrams' Cloverfield monster.
On a technical level, as with his two prior feature directorial efforts (2006's Mission: Impossible III, 2009's Star Trek), Abrams rarely steps wrong, extracting uniformly excellent performances from his cast of both youngsters and oldsters. But he's so hidebound in his Spielbergian devotional -- down to the period setting and Michael Giacchino's John Williams-esque score -- that it never feels like anything other than Abrams "doing" Spielberg the same way Gus Van Sant "did" Hitchcock with his shot-for-schot Psycho remake in '98.
That the Lost co-creator so successfully captured the surface feel and gloss of the auteur and era he's homaging is an impressive feat, no doubt, and one that's rightly worth heralding, but the overall impression one is left with is akin to watching a really solid '80s tribute band. It might be enjoyable in the moment, but after seeing them perform, rather than buy their album, you want to pop in your CD of the original group and hear the real versions of the songs you just heard.
In much the same way, Abrams forgot to give Super 8 a rhythm that does more than merely reprise the same thematic touchstones his executive producer has played to perfection already a dozen times over. Thus, moments that should be emotional ring hollow, and moments that should be terrifying feel prosaic. It's impossible to dislike an effort this practiced and efficient, but while you can appreciate it for its ambition and admire it for its prowess, its unflinching fealty to its own waxwork artifice constrains it from ever becoming truly exceptional.