J.J. Abrams is known for his secrecy. The director/producer of Lost and Star Trek fame has proven himself to be an expert showman when it comes to promoting his projects — cryptic publicity shots that obscure rather than reveal are standard fare. Luckily, in Super 8, for which Abrams wears the triple crown of writer, director and producer, the reveal is one to behold: a summer blockbuster with the flair of a forgotten age.
The time: 1979. The place: an Ohio factory town. While shooting a zombie movie with the titular camera, Joe (Joel Courtney) and his friends — a gang teetering on the precipice of adolescence— witness and unwittingly record a horrific train crash. The Air Force soon descends on the town as a series of unexplainable events unfolds. Meanwhile, Joe grapples with his relationships, both with his father and with the female star of his own film.
Abrams’ usage of familiar formulas comes across as affectionately referential rather than tired. Plot points and stylistic devices recall such classics of summer storytelling as Stand By Me, E.T. and Jaws.
This attitude of loving reminiscence underlies the impact of Super 8. The production design radiates warm, understated nostalgia, evoking the setting with authenticity and credibility. Abrams renders early adolescence with a similar touch, drawing sympathetic performances from his young stars. Narrative drama forms the centerpiece of the film rather than the bells and whistles that characterize more than a few other sci-fi CGI extravaganzas. Sure, it’s a film about a big, loud mystery in a small, quiet town. But thankfully it’s also about the earnest spirit of wonder that belonged to a bygone era.