Watching "Super 8" is like watching the big-screen equivalent of a cover band: Writer-director J.J. Abrams is so blatantly and unabashedly aping the tone, style and thematic signals of Steven Spielberg's early canon that the movie frequently comes across as an exercise in sheer mimicry. As a shallow cinematic nostalgia trip, it's reasonably effective, but it never quite stands on its own.
The setup is classic Spielberg, part "E.T.," part "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," part "Jaws": A group of middle-schoolers plan to spend their summer piecing together a homemade zombie movie (on 8mm film, the "super 8" of the title). But in the midst of filming, they unexpectedly witness a spectacular train crash on the edge of their small town.
The train turns out to be an Air Force transport, and in the days that follow, strange events begin to occur throughout the community: People go missing, automobile engines disappear, and family pets run away. The military sweeps into the town, and as the kids attempt to use the post-crash chaos as background for their home movie, they quickly discover that there's more to the crash than meets the eye.
Like any good cover band, Mr. Abrams plays all of Mr. Spielberg's greatest hits. There are crawling camera zooms, tension-driven fakeouts followed by quick bursts of terror, and a slow layering of mystical happenings leading toward a late reveal. As if to drive home the "E.T." connection, Mr. Abrams includes copious swooping crane shots of kids riding old-fashioned bicycles through the hills of a middle-class 1970s neighborhood.
Mr. Abrams even manages to appropriate Mr. Spielberg's sentimental treatment of childhood innocence and looming family tensions: Connected to the monster mystery is another narrative thread about a sweet, geeky young boy named Joe (Joel Courtney) who must close a distant relationship with his father (Kyle Chandler), a sheriff's deputy, after his mother dies in a factory accident.
Mr. Spielberg has given the film his implicit blessing by serving as a producer. And Mr. Abrams, the creative force behind TV's "Lost" and "Alias," as well as 2009's successful reboot of "Star Trek," is mostly proficient with his mimicry, at least at a technical level.
Yet Mr. Abrams' Spielbergian riffing lacks the effortless movie magic it was inspired by. Mr. Spielberg's sentimentality, for example, could be saccharine, but it grew out of a genuine sense of childlike wonder at the world. Mr. Abrams' contrived emotional beats - quiet kid, dead mom, emotionally distant father - come across as far too calculated, as if he was merely crossing off items on a "make-the-audience-care" checklist.
Indeed, there's a dull checklist quality to much of the film that stands in stark contrast to Mr. Spielberg's intuitive, impeccable craftsmanship. Mr. Spielberg's best movies work because every element is necessary. Too much of "Super 8's" story feels crudely pieced together out of elements that exist for no other reason than that Mr. Spielberg used them once before. As with so many competent but forgettable cover bands, it turns out that merely playing the right notes just isn't enough.
TITLE: "Super 8"
CREDITS: Written and directed by J.J. Abrams, produced by Steven Spielberg
RATING: PG-13 for monster mayhem, military menace
RUNNING TIME:118 minutes
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS
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