Give J.J. Abrams credit for stones the size of bowling balls, because he practically gift-wraps the pike on which his science-fiction thriller Super 8 could be skewered. Early in the film, aspiring middle-school filmmaker Charles (Riley Griffiths) explains to his pal, Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney), why he has added new scenes to the zombie movie they're shooting with Charles' Super-8 camera. It can't be just about the creatures, Charles quotes from the screenwriting books he's been brushing up on; you have to care about the characters, so that you want them to live. Wink, wink. Nudge, nudge.
Then, for much of the first hour, Abrams delivers exactly what he knows we need, as he introduces us to the residents of small-town Lillian, Ohio, circa 1979.
He sets up the tragic death of Joe's mother in a steel-mill accident, leaving him in the care of his father (Kyle Chandler), a sheriff's deputy who doesn't know nearly enough about his son as a person. He establishes a loose, enjoyable dynamic between Charles, Joe and the other members of their film-crew posse, including budding firebug Cary (Ryan Lee) and puke-prone lead actor Martin (Gabriel Bosso). And he brings an almost effortless charm to Joe's wide-eyed crush on classmate Alice (Elle Fanning), newly recruited to act in Charles' movie. The kids are so money that for around 45 minutes of Super 8 I was enthralled by the prospect that I was watching one for the ages.
Eventually, however, it comes time for those kids to encounter … something. It begins with a magnificently staged train derailment near the depot where they’re shooting a scene for their movie, an apocalypse of raining boxcars and fuel explosions the kids barely escape with their lives — and film of the incident that could put their lives in jeopardy. As Abrams keeps his mystery hidden — and the town is plagued by weirdness like disappearing dogs and random power failures — there’s still plenty of opportunity for the story to remain an adventure involving these youngsters. But little distractions keep tugging Super 8 away from what should have been its focus. And it’s maddening, because Super 8 keeps circling around to the stuff that could have made it a classic. Grade: B
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