Sure-footed ‘Super 8’ rolls over rough patches

June 20, 2011

For the non-geek filmgoer, the term “lens flare” will mean absolutely nothing. But they will know it when they see it.

It's a photographic technique that causes light to flatten and streak out into a horizon-like pattern that fills the screen. Director (and producer of "Super 8") Steven Spielberg used it religiously in his earlier films of the '70s and '80s, as seen in "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," "E.T.," and "Raiders of the Lost Ark," among others.

"Super 8's" director, J.J. Abrams, relied on this technique in his "Star Trek" reboot, but it wasn't until this latest film that I realized how nostalgic that little cinematic trick made me.

It is, in fact, one of many sweet throwbacks to films of youth contained within "Super 8," a paean to classic sci-fi films of that era. It's a film that delivers in its promise of monster-y mayhem, but is not afraid to let its emotions show. "Super 8" has been enshrouded in mystery this past year, only allowing filmgoers brief glimpses of what this creature feature would deliver. And while it may not be the all-out mayhem one might have expected, the result is much better.

The film, set in 1979, follows a group of small-town, middle school friends who are ready to spend their summer completing a backyard movie to enter into a local festival competition.

Our protagonist, Joe (played by Joel Courtney) has recently suffered the loss of his mom and is living with a cold-but-caring dad (played by Kyle Chandler), who is also the town sheriff. Joe's motley moviemaking crew includes Charles (played by Riley Griffiths), the portly director; Cary (Ryan Lee), a firecracker-happy runt; Martin (played by Gabriel Basso), the film's puking-prone lead actor; and Preston (played by Zach Mills), the scrawny lighting supervisor.

Joe's skills with the brush designate him as the little movie's special effects and make-up guy, and they also come in handy in bringing him closer to the face of lead actress Alice (played by Elle Fanning), the object of his prepubescent crush.

During one particular shoot at an abandoned station, a train rumbles into town and derails. In their escape from the explosion, they leave the cameras rolling, capturing a strange creature leaving one of the cars. When the military quickly and secretively descends upon the town to investigate, it sends the filmmakers on an adventure straight from the heart of Spielbergian Country. By setting the film in 1979, director Abrams is allowed to dabble in the pre-internet world of youth - one filled with races against time on BMX bikes, chats that take place face-to-face, and information that is not easily dispensed with the click of a button. But it’s not presented with a grumbling “When I was your age, we used to...” tone. Abrams sticks with the common Spielberg theme of the cunning of kids and their ability to band together to surmount overwhelming obstacles (as in “The Goonies” and “E.T.”). It also shares DNA from a forgotten Joe Dante film of the same era, 1985’s “Explorers.”

Lest you think this is a cuddly valentine filled with wide-eyed, candy-loving aliens, the film does wear its PG-13 rating proudly. The kids swear (as kids of that age, regardless of the generation, are prone to do when out of adult earshot), the casualties are real, and things manage to get quite intense in the climatic scenes. It should be noted that none of this could have been pulled off were it not for the heartfelt performances from its young leads. Abrams coaxes a depth seldom felt with groups of children of that awkward age. Courtney and Fanning are standouts, with performances that contain none of the self-aware gestures that can typically hamper young actors. They all ground the film’s otherworldly elements in humanity when things get a little nutty during the alien rampage. The chaotic conclusion is perhaps the film’s only drawback, and that is the incongruity of the ferocious, destructive nature of the beast, and the sympathy it’s given by the children. It’s not that the alien does not deserve it, it’s just that Abrams doesn’t spend enough time allowing the alien to earn it with the audience. It leads to a tonal imbalance at key moments.