What writer-director J.J. Abrams manages with Super 8 is the same thing he did with his version of Star Trek in 2009, taking familiar movie elements and giving them a glossy shine, restoring the sense of wonder to ideas and techniques that have been worn out from years of misuse. In this case Abrams takes on the coming-of-age story and the monster movie, drawing heavily from the early films of his idol (and Super 8 producer) Steven Spielberg, even setting the movie in 1979. Super 8 doesn’t do anything radically new, but it does a lot of old stuff really well.
That starts with the central characters, a group of young teenage misfits who may remind you of the kids from The Goonies or Stand by Me. There’s Joe (Joel Courtney), a smart, sensitive idealist, and of course there’s a love interest for him, the tough and slightly dangerous (but vulnerable) Alice (Elle Fanning). Joe’s buddies include the pudgy, bossy Charles (Riley Griffiths), who’s working on a homemade zombie movie with his Super 8 camera. While filming late one night at a deserted rail station, the kids witness something they weren’t supposed to see: A military train is derailed by a pick-up truck, creating a spectacular crash and unleashing something sinister from one of its cars.
Soon the kids’ small Ohio town is overrun with military personnel, and Joe’s cop dad (Kyle Chandler) is trying to find out what’s going on. Eventually Abrams builds to a big, effects-heavy climax, but before he gets to that, he’s just as concerned with the budding relationship between Joe and Alice, Joe’s grief over his mother’s recent death and the camaraderie among the kids as he is with what kind of mysterious monster has been unleashed. Abrams fills in just enough backstory to make the action exciting, but the movie really succeeds in its smaller moments, the little emotional beats that get lost in most sci-fi blockbusters. Sometimes those moments fit together a little awkwardly with the big picture, but Abrams barrels on with such enthusiasm, and his young performers (especially Fanning) are so spot-on that it doesn’t really matter. However much of this you’ve seen before, Abrams succeeds in making it all mean something again.