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Review: 'Super 8' is a real throwback

By Tom Charity, Special to CNN
A group of young, aspiring filmmakers run into the supernatural in the new JJ Abrams film, "Super 8."
A group of young, aspiring filmmakers run into the supernatural in the new JJ Abrams film, "Super 8."
  • JJ Abrams, the man behind "Lost" and the latest "Star Trek" film, helms "Super 8"
  • The film follows a group of teens who encounter the supernatural while making a movie
  • Set in 1979, it stars Joel Courtney, Riley Griffiths and Elle Fanning

(CNN) -- Unless the mice have got there first, somewhere in a box in my basement you'll find a dusty old Super-8 projector and a handful of spools of film.

The films consist of a chase thriller, a ghost story (we used toothpaste to white out our faces) and a family fable, each one written by, directed, shot, edited and starring my best friend Jonathan and yours truly, and dating back to the age of 14 or 15.

That must make me the ideal audience for "Super 8," the latest from "Star Trek" regenerator / "Lost" creator JJ Abrams, a picture about heroic schoolboy moviemakers that also happens to be a supernatural suspense thriller and a family fable all rolled into one.

It is set in 1979, when Abrams was 13 and the same age as Joe and Charles (Joel Courtney and Riley Griffiths), best buddies hard at work on "The Case," a zombie flick that picks up unexpectedly high production value when a train derails right in front of them, mid-shot.

And not just any train either. This one is a secret US Air Force transport, carrying cargo the likes of which the residents of Lillian, Ohio, have never seen.

No two ways about it, this is a great, grabby set-up. Abrams pokes affectionate fun at the kids' artistic pretensions as they scramble to make their monster-piece against a backdrop of deepening mystery and mounting anxiety.

The period details are just so -- Joe has learned make-up from Dick Smith's book, a bible for certain kids at that time, while Charles has to wait three days to get his rushes processed in what passed for a quick turnaround in the analogue era.

But "Super 8" isn't just set in 1979, it might almost have been made then -- give or take a couple of CGI set-pieces and the kind of knowing in-joke that only makes sense in retrospect, such as a throwaway about the Walkman being a slippery slope, for instance.

Steven Spielberg is the producer, and the movie evokes the look and feel of several classic Spielberg pictures, most notably "ET: The Extra-Terrestrial" in its child's-eye-view of what shapes up to be a national security crisis. The film is also evocative of "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," "Jaws," "The Goonies" and "Explorers."

The unhurried pacing, the cat-and-mouse suspense and a preference for insinuation over spectacle all mark "Super 8" as a retro piece, a throwback to a time when moviemakers were more influenced by Alfred Hitchcock and Howard Hawks than Stan Lee and Super Mario.

Am I nostalgic for those days?

Sure. But I'm also old enough to remember that at the time Spielberg was accused of infantilizing the movies, of pandering to commercialism and refusing to grow up. No less than that Walkman, Spielberg's success was a slippery business, the thin end of the wedge.

In any case, Abrams' imitation is a shade too reverent for my taste. He lacks the subversive edge that allowed Joe Dante to bite his producer's hand and bring "Gremlins" to life, for example, and Abrams seems unsure just how scary he wants things to get. Not too scary, apparently.

Like many Spielberg productions, "Super 8" suggests that kids represent the best in us. Joe and Elle Fanning's Alice (a pretty blonde who accepts a role in Charles' film and acts the socks off her co-stars) share a generosity and courage their respective parents, a widower and a drunk, have lost.

That's a valuable thought, but feebly plotted later scenes in which the children easily evade the military make you wonder why the Marines don't recruit middle school students, they're so much smarter and more capable than the rest of us.

At 13, I probably believed that, too. Nowadays, I tend to think the world is a more complicated place than that. We're closer to "Dawn of the Dead" than "Close Encounters," and sorry to say, the Goonies aren't going to turn that around.

I'll still be taking my kid though and try to see it through his eyes.