It might have J.J. Abrams’ name on it, but the real heart of Super 8 comes from its producer Steven Spielberg. It also has both men's love of pop culture and movie history. To put it another way, Super 8 is essentially Close Encounters of the Cloverfield Goonies.
The films follows a group of friends as they negotiate the travails of young adolescence, with tentative crushes and familial dramas, held together by their collective love of filmmaking. For the first 20 minutes of the film we meet the protagonists as they go about their business shooting their no-budget zombie film, lulling you into a sense of “ah, this is a Stand By Me-style coming of age drama” until an explosive train crash sets the film off on an entirely different tangent. Then the military get involved, things start going mysteriously awry as townspeople vanish, machinery is destroyed and it becomes clear that there was something unearthly in the train that is now at large – but what are its motives? Will it destroy humanity, or is it just misunderstood? And, most importantly, will this crisis help sort out the issues that the film’s central characters have with their emotionally-unavailable fathers?
First, the good things about Super 8: the cast are excellent (especially leads Joel Courtney as the film’s young protagonist Joe Lamb and Elle Fanning as teenage love interest Alice Dainard) and Abrams keeps the plot barrelling along nicely. The problem is that we’ve seen all this before, and recently: in fact, this plays on much the same sci-fi clichés as Greg Mottola’s recent Paul, which was at least a comedy. The rag-tag gang with frequently-telegraphed talents evokes The Goonies (hey, I wonder if that kid who only ever talks about making explosives will find his talent for making explosives will come in handy at some crucial narrative junction?), the heavy-handed government that rides roughshod over the community just needs a few hazmat suits to be E.T., and the handheld camera work and jarring changes of pace are pretty much every CG-heavy action film of the last five years. However, this is also a piece of Spielberg family entertainment so the action is explosive but entirely safe, and no amount of Abrams’ visual zip can help the several mawkish moments of over-saccharine emotion.
All that being said: while critics of a certain age are going to see all the reference points, this is the sort of film that today’s adolescents are likely to deeply relate to in exactly the same way that teenage Green Day fans put up with sneering of “cough*Melvins*cough” from their older siblings. Some stories warrant a re-telling for every generation, and at least Super 8 tells that story well.