Pretty darn good 8, rather, but that's a horrible title
Let me get this off my chest first: yes, there are lens flares in Super 8. Lots of them. Some of them are in places where they add a dash of beauty or wistfulness, most are not. And even the "good" ones feel like it took much too much work to get them there. One supposes that J.J. Abrams noticed all the hubbub about the wall-to-wall lens flares in his 2009 Star Trek reboot, and thought to hisself, "Well, heck, if they noticed it, they must have liked it", and decided that would be his directorial signature from here on out, even if it doesn't make sense and doesn't work. Super 8 does not have as many lens flares as Star Trek, because nothing could, but it does have far, far more lens flares than any movie should ever be able to justify. If I ever meet J.J. Abrams, I am going to greet him by punching him right in the nuts and saying, "Nice lens flares, fucker."
I am incredibly pleased to say, however, that excepting the lens flares, there's basically not a single element of Super 8 about which I have anything bad to say. It is getting spectacularly overpraised in certain corners, but that's just what happens with tentpole movies nowadays, and that doesn't alter the fact that, with all the hype scraped away, what remains is a magnificently small-focus, character driven, nice summer movie. Nice, not in the sense that it is full of hugs and platitudes about being a good person, but in that it is simple, undemanding, not at all worked up over its internal mythology (something Abrams himself does not seem to realise), using CGI and visual effects as they are necessary. It is nice because it doesn't feel like the newest tentacle of a franchise octopus, establishing characters and setting up a sequel hook and kicking off a line of action figures and video games, existing instead because the man who wrote and directed it wanted it to exist; it is the first and very possibly the only obviously personal tentpole movie of 2011. It is nice, in other words, because Abrams loves it, not because he is using it to make money. Which he is, of course, but not with such barren results as in pick-your-favorite-example-of-a-mercenary-franchise-picture.
The film is, broadly, an attempt to recapture the spirit of a big family-friendly summer movie from the early 1980s (when they were all "nice" according to the definition I've just given), and specifically to be Abrams's very own Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, the two films being most obviously referenced in Super 8, though a complete list of influences would probably include every PG-rated film with a focus on visual effects released from 1978 to 1984. It is no accident, of course, that Abrams would make a giant love letter to the early work of Steven Spielberg (it is no accident either that he produces Super 8), for it is no exaggeration to say that the younger filmmaker owes his entire career to the older man, who commissioned 15-year-old Abrams to edit together the old super 8 mm movies Spielberg had shot in his own youth
This was only a couple years after Abrams was the same age as his protagonists in Super 8, and it is yet a third non-accident that Abrams was 13 in 1979, the same exact year that his movie, with its 13-year-old heroes, takes place. The movie positively wallows in nostalgia like that, and it can, truthfully, get a little bit tiresome at times. But sincerity, even over-the-top, marginally embarrassing sincerity, is always going to be preferable to slick artificiality. Do I wish that there had been no scene in which the five boys at the heart of the movie performed an a cappela rendition of "My Sharona"? Aye, that I do, but I'm also glad that Abrams believed in that scene enough that he insisted on putting it in.
Anyway, after the first scene, the film all takes place in the span of a few days in Lillian, OH, a beatific small town/suburb hybrid anchored by a local steel mill. It was this mill that took the life of Joe Lamb's (Joel Courtney) mother - this was the subject of the opening scene, in fact, a lovely bit of exposition that falls right where it ought to on the scale of "pushy exposition" vs. "too clever for such a mainstream film" - and left him in the care of his emotionally absent father Jackson (Kyle Chandler), because you can't make a Spielberg homage without daddy issues, not that J.J. "Everybody in Lost hates their father" Abrams has an issue with coming up with daddy issues on his own.
Joe is the make-up artist who works with local auteur Charles (Riley Griffiths), 13-year-old creator of 8mm epics made with all the care and attention of a much costlier studio project, and it is the case one night that Charles has decided to drag Joe and the rest of their filmmaking gang to a train depot for one scene ("Production value!" he declares in a flurried combination of enthusiasm and Godlike authority, and I love him dearly), along with Alice Dainard (Elle Fanning), the object of Joe's early-pubertal longings, and also the daughter of his father's arch-enemy (Ron Eldard). Which isn't a deal-breaker, given that Alice has daddy issues of her own, because Abrams making a Spielberg picture clearly means that just one kid with an absent father isn't enough.
Long story short: an Air Force train derails (is derailed...) right in front of the kids' movie shoot, and thus is a Something freed; something that attracts metal and shorts out electronics like a giant ambulatory electromagnetic, something that scares all the dogs out of Lillian, and something that begins snatching people for unknown ends. As the town begins to go crazy from fear, Charles tries to finish his movie and Joe tries in a fumbling adolescent way to get close to Alice; eventually, we find out exactly what's happening and why and involving what nature of beast, though despite how much the advertising makes it seem like these mysteries are the heart and soul of Super 8, I found them to be entirely beside the point. The stuff with the kids, now that is truly engaging cinema, led by Courtney's outrageously good lead turn; it's not just a great juvenile performance, it's a great performance full stop. A baffled everyman staring down a crisis that he can't stop and only barely understands while trying to keep his personal life together, Courtney is every bit the anchor to the movie's paranormal flourishes that Richard Drefyfuss is to CEotTK, and he does it without benefit of ever having acted in a movie before. It is thanks to his work at least as much as it is Abrams's forgiving characterisation that we end up liking Joe as much as we have to if the film is going to succeed as a personal drama.
There are plenty of other performances that are great: all of the kids are quite magnificent, most of them with deeper résumés than Courtney and Griffith; it is perhaps no surprise that acting scion Elle Fanning manages to make a good impression - her acting in the film-within-the-film is one of the highlights of the whole affair - despite having the most undernourished character; this is a lad's project, and she is the Exotic Feminine intruding into a world of boys; this cannot be a fun or rewarding role to play (nor is it a terribly satisfying role to watch: Abrams can't manage quite the same sleight-of-hand that Spielberg is so good at, making us not care that his single important female character is basically a fantasy object), but as much as she can, Fanning gives the role depth. Though she's powerless in the last 30 minutes, when Alice becomes just a damsel in distress.
Really, the movie as a whole suffers in the last 30 or 45 minutes, right about from the moment the Thing goes from being an amorphous to a specific threat, and the whole thing devolves into a protracted chase scene. Not a badly-done chase scene, mind you: Abrams has improved as a filmmaker to such a ridiculous degree that the fingerprints of the man who made Mission: Impossible III and Star Trek look like shiny, overpriced TV movies cannot be detected at all. The last five minutes in particular are unabashed hokum, wedged in because it worked in better movies, and all in all, the more it's not about the focused recreation of a place with sharply-described characters dealing with an inexplicable foe, the more it loses its personality and becomes "just a popcorn movie".
Yet, a good popcorn movie: the train crash is by a wide margin the best setpiece Abrams has ever directed, managing to be hectic and confusing in all the good ways, relying on much longer shots than most such scenes in contemporary cinema and wringing its incoherence from the chaos of the moment, rather than just being incoherent (I've heard people complain it's too long; I rather liked that part of it. Felt more, dunno, apocalyptic). For all that the reveal of the monster is more "oh, okay then" than "My God, I can't believe it", the slow boil up to that point is positively exquisite. Michael Giacchino's score is a note-perfect tribute to John Williams's work of that period without being a plain copy. Larry Fong's cinematography is far, far prettier than anything we deserve from modern blockbusters. And the humor is bright without being annoyingly "jokey": the willingness Abrams shows to poke gentle fun at himself and kids like he used to be almost single-handedly saves the picture from being nothing but nostalgic masturbation.
Sure, it's fannish: it's target audience is people who were 13 in 1979 rather than people who are 13 now, and the fact that it's such a visually and tonally perfect tribute to a bygone way of storytelling doesn't manage to disguise how little Abrams himself has to say: no Quentin Tarantino is he, using the art of pastiche to express something new and personal, instead he uses the art of pastiche to make the best possible pastiche. And yet, within those limits, the film is a lovely, easy thing to watch and enjoy. I don't imagine it will be around in 30 years, like its inspirations, but here in the moment it's a desperately welcome respite from one damn CGI-laden superhero picture after another.
NB: Best part: the short zombie film the kids made, played over the end credits. Easily the sweetest and most humane part of the whole damn picture.