A big-bang demolition derby, J.J. Abrams's much-anticipated, greatly enjoyable Super 8 seems bound for box-office glory. Opening three weeks before July 4th, this Steven Spielberg-produced, kid-centric 21st-century disaster flick could well hang in at theaters till the tenth anniversary of 9/11 — an event that haunts Abrams's surefire blockbuster nearly as much as it did his earlier production Cloverfield, or his major influence, the master's War of the Worlds.
Set in a small rustbelt town during the summer of '79, Super 8 basically refracts — or re-refracts — a familiar '50s sci-fi trope, even as Abrams riffs on the freshly minted sense of suburban wonderment that Spielberg brought to the material in the late '70s and early '80s. Newly motherless Joe Lamb (neophyte Joel Courtney) is making a Super8 Night of the Living Dead with a bunch of fellow 14-year-olds. In a nice touch, the most obnoxious is the director (Riley Griffiths, another first-timer), while the star, most convincingly, is Elle Fanning, a nice girl from the wrong side of the tracks. Joe's puppy love is sealed by her playful zombie kiss, although Abrams might himself identify with the second most obnoxious goony, an annoying little firebug who lives to blow things up (Ryan Lee).
The kids are out late one night, secretly filming by the town railroad, when a pickup truck apparently stalls on the tracks, precipitating a massive flaming-boxcar-hurling apocalyptic derailment of terror — not the first instance of total Ground Zero devastation this Ohio town will endure. Before long, unseen whatzits are liquidating various characters, stealing car engines, cutting the electrical power, and frightening the town's dog population into scampering for neighboring counties.
The U.S. Army, even more sinister here than in Close Encounters or E.T., takes control, leaving legitimate, if overly uptight, authority to Joe's father (Kyle Chandler), a local deputy sheriff. (The movie has a fair amount of emotional backstory, which mainly comes down to what makes a good dad.) "This feels like a Russian invasion," someone insists at a chaotic town meeting — and that's before the army's red-faced commander (Noah Emmerich) orders a mass evacuation. Soldiers are ubiquitous, but as in Cloverfield, Abrams rations out the whatzit appearances in fragmentary bits and pieces. The movie manages to keep its secret for nearly 90 minutes, and although it's not hard to figure, you won't have it spelled out here.
Drawing on George Romero as well as Spielberg (teenage 8mm filmmakers both), Super 8 is part travesty, part homage. Abrams has something of Romero's skepticism and cheesiness. He's less cloying than Spielberg and hardly concerned with superficial verisimilitude — although it is possible that the first Walkman in America showed up in an Ohio 7-Eleven. Abrams's kid-clutter mise-en-scene is more extreme; his sense of humor is wilder. (The obligatory wall of scribbled messages is entirely devoted to missing pets.) Before the movie ends, suburban heaven becomes a war zone, replete with tanks and explosions, while an instance of mind-melding rapport between the kids and the whatzit is near-hilarious in its deadpan sentimentality. And through it all, the kids keep working on their project. In a sense, that movie is Super 8 itself — the intensity vaporizes thought as the galloping pace tramples narrative logic into dust. (According to the press notes, the actual Super8 movie was shot and directed by Abrams's teenage cast.)
Named for an obsolete cinema technology, Super 8 is involving enough to create its own reality. (Exiting the theater, you might instinctively duck to avoid an SUV plunging out of the sky.) The movie begins by evoking a mom crushed to death in a steel-mill mishap, and it never wanders very far from the spectacle of smashed metal and shattered glass. The whole thing feels like one long car crash — not meant as a put-down. Machines exist to pulverize or be pulverized. Without necessarily meaning to be, Super 8 is an American tale, dramatizing the long-ago crackup of the nation's industrial infrastructure.