Calling all monster kids

Speilbergian throwback starts fast, then loses steam

Once again, we are not alone.

Once again, we are not alone.

Super 8
Starring Joel Courtney, Kyle Chandler and Elle Fanning. Directed by J.J. Abrams. Cinemark 14, Feather River Cinemas and Paradise Cinema 7. Rated PG-13.
Rated 3.0

In a world of CGI-effect-driven blockbusters, Super 8 deserves some credit for delivering a disaster set-piece that still manages to be both horrifying and exhilarating at the same time.

As a train loaded with mysterious cargo derails and devastates an abandoned rural station, the extended sequence of flying cargo cars and explosions takes on an almost operatic air that provokes gasps that slowly turn to laughter as the sturm und drang keeps banging and banging on. It’s pretty damn cool. Unfortunately, it’s the inciting incident, and Super 8 never really matches that energy for the rest of its running time. Not that that’s necessarily bad, it’s just that a certain languor sets in that the movie never really recovers from.

Set in a sleepy Ohio steel town poised to enter the Reagan era with the rest of America, the premise is pure Spielberg, circa 1979. A young boy is recovering from the death of his mother and emotional distance from his father by focusing his attention on filming a Super 8 backyard zombie movie crewed by his Goonies-esque posse of “monster kids” (adolescents who lived and breathed monster movies in a time when that hobby was considered a sign of nascent mental illness).

While shooting late at night at the aforementioned abandoned train station, they witness a truck deliberately plow into the train, and the subsequent carnage. As they dodge the flying debris and scurry to save their own asses, their camera continues to roll. But in the moment, the kids have no idea what they’ve captured on film. They’re too busy trying to escape the more mundane danger of falling into the clutches of an evil Air Force officer intent on mopping up all traces of the incident. And then, folks from around town start to disappear …

A collaboration between writer/director J.J. Abrams (Lost) and producer Steven Spielberg, Super 8 is an affectionate homage to the latter’s oeuvre, back when Spielberg was The Man and every movie that bore his stamp was a pop-culture event.

For anyone over 40, the movie is pure nostalgia-porn. As one of those ’70s monster kids who grew up in rural Ohio, I’ll admit that there is a weird vérité to how Super 8 pulls it off (especially the use of ELO’s “Don’t Bring Me Down.” which was the last pop song I really liked before finally escaping the farm). There’s an eerie authenticity to its replication of the era, even down to the throaty rumble of the Detroit dinosaurs that roll around town—and the dieseling knocks of less well-tuned vehicles.

Unfortunately, although the young cast members do an excellent job of filling out their archetypes, the narrative never really manages to match their efforts. And the final reveal is just weak-sauce CGI. Despite the velocity of that train crash, Super 8 never really displays any forward momentum. It’s as if each scene is set in amber and the pieces lined up beside each other until the chain leads into the closing credits (which I recommend sticking around for).