J.J. Abrams is a pastiche artist. His calling as a filmmaker is taking cultish properties and re-creating them as mainstream ones that pay homage to the originals while smoothing out their weird bits. He revived Star Trek as a rousing space adventure no jock would be ashamed to enjoy. He crossed classic TV oddity “The Prisoner” with a prime-time soap and created “Lost.” He made over the monster movie MTV-style for Cloverfield.
Abrams’ latest movie, Super 8, breaks from the pattern insofar as it’s a pastiche of something that never lacked mass appeal: Steven Spielberg’s E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Three decades ago, Spielberg helped science fiction go mainstream by populating his UFO stories with relatable, contemporary characters: bickering couples, hyperactive kids. He used realism to give weight to the spooky tales where Eisenhower-era clichés had reigned.
Abrams strives to re-create the look and feel of those early Spielberg movies in Super 8, which is set in their era (1979). Overall, the writer-director does an impressive job of cashing in on Generation X nostalgia without betraying the spirit of the films he obviously loves. As pastiches go, Super 8 has a rougher, realer texture than most, and it doesn’t condescend to its young characters. (Stand by Me is another clear influence.) It harks back to the kids’ movies of old in good ways, such as its solid acting and nonfrenetic pacing. But, as an otherworldly fantasy with staying power, Super 8 doesn’t cut it.
Abrams sets the story in a depressed Ohio manufacturing town and tells it from the perspective of a kid on the cusp of his teenage years, like Elliott in E.T. Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) has recently lost his mother and can’t relate to his sheriff’s deputy dad (Kyle Chandler). To add an extra layer of meta-, Abrams makes Joe’s friend Charles (Riley Griffiths) an imperious little would-be Orson Welles who hopes to win a festival prize with his new zombie movie. (Spielberg, who produced Super 8, directed epic 8-millimeter films as a preteen.)
By far the best scenes are the ones where Joe, Charles and the rest of their crew — including dim leading man Martin (Gabriel Basso) and metal-mouthed fireworks fiend Cary (Ryan Lee) — shoot their cheapie. Elle Fanning strikes poignant notes as Alice, who’s cast as the film’s token girl but turns out to be the only real thespian.
When a midnight shoot is interrupted by a disastrous train derailment, Charles’ camera catches something bizarre, and the movie shifts into sci-fi thriller mode. There are objects being mysteriously hurled great distances, disappearances and sinister military men. While these goings-on are entertaining, the film’s eventual revelations won’t startle any genre-savvy viewer over the age of 8.
Spielberg had a rare talent for fusing terror and wonder in his tales of ordinary people encountering the unknown. Abrams has ... CGI. Though he works hard to reproduce the thrill of the early UFO incursions in Close Encounters, which felt like a cross between vandalism and divine visitation, the magic isn’t there.
If nothing else, Super 8 reminds the YouTube generation that movies used to be damned hard to make. When they’re done right, they still are.