Thursday, June 9, 2011

A kids' adventure that delivers

Director J.J. Abrams channels his inner Spielberg -- and it mostly works.
It seems like a long time since we've had a breathless teen adventure, a movie fueled by enthusiasm, bustle and a desire to watch many things blow up. Super 8, director J.J. Abrams' homage to Steven Spielberg, is a mostly welcome throwback to the kind of movies Spielberg used to make, which means it's filled with cascading action and awe-struck aspirations.

Don't get the wrong idea. Best known for having created TV's Lost, as well as for movies such as Mission Impossible III and Star Trek, Abrams doesn't pay fawning tribute to Spielberg, who served as one of the movie's producers. Instead, he delivers a movie that tries to balance charm and shock.

Set in the tiny town of Lillian, Ohio, Super 8 focuses on a group of boys (and one girl) that sets out to make a zombie movie with a Super 8 camera, the kind of accessible gear that dominated the late '70s, when the movie takes place.

When the kids sneak out for a late-night filming session, they become witnesses to a monstrous train wreck, presented by Abrams with full appreciation for the force with which flying boxcars can hit the ground.

After the crash, Lillian is beset by strange occurrences. Electrical appliances stop working. Power outages become routine. Engines disappear from vehicles on a used-car lot. Something's afoot, something mysterious, dangerous and not too difficult to predict if you've seen enough movies.

The boys in the movie give strong and sometimes amusing performances. Charlie (Riley Griffiths) is directing the zombie film with vigor, as well as with a precocious insistence on maximizing "production value." But it's Joe (Joel Courtney) -- the kid who handles make-up and effects -- who emerges as the movie's main character.

Joe recently lost his mother in an industrial accident. He's trying to adjust, as is his sheriff's deputy father (Kyle Chandler), a lawman who assumes increasing responsibility for the town's safety as the story unfolds.

Joe also has a crush on Alice (Elle Fanning), the daughter of a drunk; Alice is recruited to act in the zombie movie. Unlike the rest of the amateur cast, Alice actually has acting chops.

With movies such as Super 8, it doesn't take long for "the authorities" to rear their troublesome heads. The Air Force begins investigating the train wreck, cluing us to the fact that something more than a derailment has happened.

Less an ode to amateur filmmaking than a bid for summer blockbusterhood, Super 8 has its share of seat-rattling moments. It also has enough of a scare factor to make it a questionable entertainment for younger children. (The movie is rated PG-13).

And for all of Abrams tries to do, he can't do the one thing that Spielberg did with hits such as Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. -- make a movie that perfectly reflects the pop-cultural zeitgeist.

Still, at its best, "Super 8" builds around characters that are entertaining and likable. You can root for these kids to make it through the chaos and overwrought destruction.

For a touch of whimsy about the kind of films movie mad middle-schoolers might actually make, you'll have to stick around through the closing credits. Be sure you do. It's worth delaying your trip to the parking lot by a few minutes.

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