Do you remember? Do you remember standing in line to watch “ET: The Extra Terrestrial” and seeing the boy on his bike float over the moon? Apparently, director J.J. Abrams remembers because it’s exactly the kind of feeling he infuses into his new homage to late childhood, adventure movies, and Steven Spielberg in his new movie “Super 8.” Similar in tone, but not plot, to “ET” and “Goonies,” this film works on multiple levels and gets them all right, making it the best movie so far of 2011.
We meet Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) on the worst day of his young life. As he teeters on the verge of adolescence, his life has been upended by the death of his mother in an industrial accident. His father (Kyle Chandler), a deputy sheriff, is left with a vulnerable boy he can’t quite understand. The small Midwestern town of Lillian, circa 1979, rallies around as they can.
As the months go by, Joe finds distraction in a project spearheaded by his best friend. Charles (Riley Griffiths) has a Super 8 camera, something modern and cool for 1979. He lives, breathes, and sleeps the zombie movie he wants to film and submit to a local competition. Joe makes models, which gives him skills at makeup, so he becomes the effects guy. Charles also recruits to his cast the nerd Preston (Zach Mills), the future jock Martin (Gabriel Basso), and the firebug with an unhealthy obsession with fireworks Cary (Ryan Lee). With all the ego of a future Hollywood player, he invites Alice (Elle Fanning) to join the troupe, partly because she’s pretty and he needs a wife character and partly because he has a crush on her.
That’s how it comes to be that the five boys and one girl are filming their amateur horror flick in the middle of the night on a deserted rural train depot. As they shout their lines over the noise of a passing train, they suddenly find themselves at the very center of a bigger, truer story. The train crashes, sending flaming rail cars and flying shards of metal all around them. When the dust settles, they find the spectacular wreck was not an accident, their biology teacher is more than just a teacher, and the train has a mysterious cargo.
The town of Lillian awakens to find itself at the center of an Air Force occupation made all the more puzzling by the disappearance of most of their appliances and some of their population. Something sinister lurks in the shadows, something the Air Force wants, something not from this world. The children, with their footage of the mysterious crash, are the only ones with the information to figure out the puzzle.
There’s something delightful and old fashioned about a film centered on children having an adventure. The link with “Goonies” and “ET” begins there, and also with the fact that Spielberg is a producer. But nostalgia also comes from the late ‘70s setting. From the Pacers in the parking lot to the cords on the phone, Abrams gets the era right. He throws in a few wry observations on how the world has changed: The magic and danger of having your music in your ears via the new-fangled Walkman player; the impossibility of developing film in 24 hours. Heck, even the concept of needing to develop film is foreign to the new generation. This adds a level of fun to the movie for adults and some wonder for children.
Another level Abrams adds to the movie is a subtext of a meditation on the very craft of storytelling. The movie within a movie gives Charles, his budding director, a chance to fuss about camera angels and keeping batteries in the camera. Sprinkled in his pontifications, however, is an instinctive knowledge of what makes movies great: The story and characters the audience cares about.
Abrams follows his young self’s formula well. While the production values are top notch – the train wreck scene is particularly well done – he builds excellent characters. Some background characters, like Charles’ father, only get a line or two, but they are enough to reveal everything you need to know about the gruff but compassionate man. The kids themselves exude authenticity and likeability.
One way the movie makes the kids likeable is by not sexualizing them. There is a romance, but it’s a very young teen romance. Joe spends much of his time looking at Alice in a sort of stupefied awe as she reveals more and more of her talents and personality to him. He can’t quite figure her out but he wants to be around her. He doesn’t necessarily want to kiss her, as would be in some movies where kids are too aware, but he is drawn to her. As the kids say, he “likes” her. It would be funny if it weren’t so tender. Scratch that. It’s both.
Rated PG-13, the film has no sexual content. It does have a kid who swears frequently. It’s cute and part of his personality and not central to the movie, but he does use pretty much all the words. One older character uses pot, but it ends up being a bad thing for him. The scenes with the Thing That Goes Roar in The Night will be scary for younger kids, especially a few good jumpy thrills the movie throws at the audience.
The best part, though, is the feeling the movie creates, part awe, part tenderness. It completely captivates. “Super 8” may be an homage, but it stands on its own as the best movie yet of 2011.