There's a lovely, quiet, magic-of-the-movies moment in Super 8. It comes early when a bunch of fresh-faced kids - we're in small-town Ohio circa the late seventies - are doing precisely what producer Steven Spielberg and director J.J. Abrams did when they were fresh-faced kids.
The budding auteurs are shooting a monster flick with a Kodak 8-millimetre camera. The makeshift set is an abandoned train station at night and, among the boys, pretty Alice is the only girl. She gets her lines, rehearses privately, the camera rolls and that's when the wonder happens.
To the astonishment of everyone, including us, the girl has the power to instantly transform herself into someone else. Yes, magic - Alice can truly act.
Obviously, so can Elle Fanning who plays her. Almost as good is newcomer Joel Courtney as little Joe the motherless child, the young teen with a big crush on pretty Alice.
In fact, all the kids here are terrific, significantly better than the actual movie that surrounds them. Although ostensibly fashioned by Abrams, it's really a summer-weight Spielberg yarn, and kicks into gear when the night train passing through the abandoned station meets with a mishap. Cue the resounding crash and the clunky action - freight cars flying, metal screeching, Dolby-pounding mayhem.
Seems it was a secret military transport carting something that the secretive military really didn't want to escape - something that, judging from the colossal growls, is out of this world. Not that we see it. Abrams does commendable work keeping the monster in the box, offering up only shadowy glimpses until the time comes for its third-act unveiling.
Of course, in the interim, the townsfolk must be subjected to the requisite quota of weird doings. Pretty soon, engines are disappearing from cars, microwaves from kitchens, dogs from their leashes and, eventually, people from their front porches. It's enough to make Joe's daddy, the deputy sheriff, mighty alarmed and more than a tad suspicious of the armed soldiers who, their secret spilled, are doing a bad job of containment.
Meanwhile, our plucky band of Super 8-ers are forging ahead like the diminutive Spielbergs they are - still making their own flick even while contending with the wonky developments of the one that has them in its clutches. There, subplots emerge, the slim kind designed as diversionary/stalling tactics before the final push of the climax.
For example, turns out that Alice, the sweet gal from the wrong side of the tracks, has a drunken dad at loggerheads with Joe's deputy dad. So, for a millisecond or two, we're left to wonder if teenie love can bloom amidst the feuding clans. Happily, it gets an assist when a home movie pops up among the various other movies: a domestic scene with Joe's late mom giving him a hug and looking awfully sweet herself. Alice watches with her wannabe boyfriend, and don't the two have a moment.
But back to the lurching action. The town's power is out and fire is spreading and the kids are in the monster's subterranean lair and the time has arrived for the unveiling. Damn. With all that new-fangled CGI at his disposal, Big J.J. comes up with nothing that Little Steven mightn't have concocted decades ago. It's just your standard-issue Thing - robotic, tentacled, massive, yet hardly menacing.
Definitely not cuddly, though. Whereas that earlier E.T. hailed from the Planet Cute, this unfortunate has deep genetic roots in the Planet Ugly. Yet cut the Thing a break. And anyone who doesn't think it has a beating heart, or doubts that heart simply wants to "go home," should turn in their summer-weight Spielberg badge. You just haven't been paying attention.
The rest of us, young and old, will be relatively content enjoying the small pockets of charm, tolerating vast expanses of the predictable and bearing witness to that lovely burst of movie magic. And to an even lovelier irony - it's the child actors, heroic indeed, who rescue Super 8 from the blockbuster grip of its adult makers.
- Directed and written by J.J. Abrams
- Starring Elle Fanning and Joel Courtney
- Classification: PG
Super 8 will be shown in sneak previews Thursday in selected theatres across the country.