It's the summer of 1979, and a group of aspiring filmmakers just out of middle school are shooting a zombie movie around their home of Lillian, Ohio when they witness a horrific train crash. They soon discover that the crash was intentionally caused by their old science teacher, that the incident involved an Air Force train carrying dangerous cargo, and that the cargo has... escaped.
Super 8 is a fun, crisply directed amalgam of Steven Spielberg's various alien movies, from Close Encounters of the Third Kind to E.T. to War of the Worlds. It should be no surprise that Spielberg himself serves as producer here, for even though this is arguably writer/director J.J. Abrams's baby, it feels like a Spielberg movie through and through. (Abrams, who was the same age as his young protagonists in 1979, obviously identifies with his characters, although the identification seems limited to a love of Spielberg movies.)
Were it not for some draggy 21st century scenes of adolescent angst and Abrams's trademark lens flares everywhere, this could have easily passed as one of Spielberg's own early '80s entries. Which isn't a knock against Super 8 at all. Despite obviously being a pastiche of the summer movies that Abrams (and yours truly) grew up with, Super 8 remains a welcome original in our modern era of sequels, remakes, reboots, adaptations, and so forth. The cast of mostly unknowns is refreshing and the pace – excluding the maudlin scenes of kids talking about their dead or troubled parents – is brisk.
Abrams also shows a talent for letting his stories play out on a grand scale: you really sense that an entire community is in danger here, which is a healthy contrast to the strangely insular feeling of most of today's blockbusters, even the ones that put our entire planet in peril. I hope Super 8 inspires a new generation of pubescent film geeks, even if I suspect that the film's real fan base – and perhaps its intended audience – consists of Gen X guys like me who long for the good old days, when summertime meant dark, funny, exciting movies like Goonies, Gremlins, and Temple of Doom (which all carried Spielberg's imprimatur as well).
In fact, why this story is set in 1979 instead of 1984, where in a cultural sense it truly belongs, is the only inconsistency. But I guess Abrams would then have to call his film VHS.