If there’s anything new to say about this weekend’s “Super 8,” it’s that it should be making bigger waves — way bigger waves. It’s the perfect marriage of minds: Steven Spielberg, the indomitable storyteller, and J.J. Abrams, who gives the story just the right amount of weirdness to distinguish it from Spielberg’s myriad epics.
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The retro-chic thriller frames the quiet town of Lillian, Oh. at the center of a tense battle between Lillian’s townies, the Army, and a mysterious, other-worldly threat. It’s easy to be skeptical at first, what with the ambiguous teaser and rumors that it would be a companion to “Cloverfield.” But “Super 8” lived up to the hype, exceeded it even.
Though he’s not in the director’s chair, many thanks are owed to Spielberg, whose fingerprints are all over this picture. He has an eye for plot elements and characters with universal appeal, and he succeeds in numerous ways here.
The acting, for one, is the best in the recent history of sci-fi film, and a huge step up from the douchey caricatures that populated “Cloverfield.” Abrams — brilliant as his films’ narrative concepts and visuals are — doesn’t always get the best performances from his talent.
That’s where Spielberg comes in. Though his usual stable of bankable actors is nowhere to be seen in “Super 8,” he gets the same (if not better) quality from a bevy of fresh faces, which include the pouty-lipped Elle Fanning (“Somewhere”), first-timer Joel Courtney and several other promising child actors.
The young cast’s natural chemistry and the retro, homely setting give us a healthy twinge of blockbuster nostalgia without gushing sentimental. No wonder the kids have already invited comparisons to the lovable youngsters of Goon Docks fame.
Better still, not a moment of screen time goes to waste as each scene addresses key plot elements with perfect pacing and equal helpings of conflict, romance, suspense and good old-fashioned violence.
Spielberg doesn’t take the whole cake, though. Evidence of Abrams’s work can be seen in some quirky, yet fitting, camera angles, and (most importantly) the awe-inducing action scenes — these include an explosive train derailment and a spaceship made of magnetized trash, both over-the-top in a good way.
As much as it hurts to criticize such a holistic effort, there are two things keeping “Super 8” from the timelessness of a traditional Spielberg film. You’ll notice the first flaw in particularly intense scenes, when dialogue among the children sounds awkwardly lighthearted. Call it conservative, but it seems disingenuous when a bunch of kids are joking about their friend’s weight problem while townspeople are killed all around them.
But these moments are few, far between and of lesser concern than the underwhelming, overly-politically correct ending, which manages to omit about half a dozen unresolved plot threads. Beautiful as the film’s final image is, it’s not much of a consolation. But most of it is still packed with enough meat to be worth your $10.
“Super 8” commits to a climax of nuclear proportions, throwing lovable characters, stylish cinematography and chaotic special effects into a mixing pot of unbearable tension. And once it’s all on the cusp of a feverish boiling point … someone turns it back down to “simmer.” A damn shame.