“Super 8” Is Not the New “E.T.”

Plus a preview of Sunday night's Tony Awards

By now you’ve read—or heard—countless comparisons between Super 8 and early Spielberg films. Unfortunately, you’re about to read one more. Like The Goonies (also executive produced by Spielberg) or Stand by Me, Super 8 is a magical, wistful tale that centers on a strong young cast as they begin an exciting and terrifying journey.

It is 1979. A group of friends continue work on a zombie movie—all shot on a Super 8 camera. One night during filming, a train derails. Soon, strange things start happening: All the town’s dogs run away; people begin disappearing. They need to figure out what’s going on…and complete their movie.

Nostalgia is not a word commonly—or positively—associated with summer blockbusters. But here, it is high praise. While the story is new(ish), there is something wonderfully familiar: small town, idyllic homes, young characters, unknown menace. However the success of this film lies completely on the shoulders of its largely unknown adolescent cast. Led by the great trio of Joel Courtney (Joe), Riley Griffiths (Charles) and Elle Fanning (Alice), these young actors create fully realized characters.

J.J. Abrams is a talented and audacious filmmaker. From Alias to Lost to Star Trek to Super 8, he takes on different genres and creates something almost new (always with hazy pathos). In lesser hands, many scenes of Super 8 could have been hammy and disappointing—like the final scenes of Signs. Instead, during the reveal of this creature, the audience maintains their sense of awe.

Super 8 is also filled with spectacular special effects (another promising similarity with Spielberg), particularly the train derailment. With sound and imagery, your heart beats very fast as the characters—and yourself—avoid buckling train cars, explosions and flying debris. The special effects are so good that you can almost—almost—forgive Abrams for including more lens flares. (Remember those scenes on the bridge in Star Trek where it felt like you were staring directly into multiple spotlights? Those are lens flares.) Here the lens flares are always blue, horizontal bands stretching across the screen—mostly during night scenes. Thankfully they are fewer than in Star Trek, but they still caused a movie-going companion to ask me what those blue lines were.

The Spielberg comparison falters with the ending. Ultimately, Super 8 does not have the emotional payoff we’ve become preconditioned to expect. This is due, in part, to the underdeveloped parental characters. While Kyle Chandler and Ron Eldard are very talented actors, their father characters remain one-dimensional. Therefore, their scenes detract, rather than add to the emotional impact. Even in a “lesser” Spielberg film like War of the Worlds, Cruise’s reunion with his son still packed a wallop.

No, Super 8 is not the new E.T. But it is a certain blockbuster with a great story, great acting, humor, scares and amazing special effects. And it makes me want to go back and watch Goonies.

My Grade: A-

Tony Awards
This Sunday, Neil Patrick Harris will be hosting the 2011 Tony Awards. And for the tens of you who will be watching, it should be a great evening. After all, this season was filled with great new works, astonishing performances and surprising hits. Here are a few things to watch for:
Book of Mormon. Expect this original, filthy, hilarious musical, by South Park creators Trey Parker/Matt Stone and Robert Lopez (Avenue Q), to dominate the night.
The Normal Heart. Easily the most heart-wrenching production in years. This extraordinary revival, directed by Joel Grey and George C. Wolfe and written by Larry Kramer, boasts devastating performances from Joe Mantello, John Benjamin Hickey, Ellen Barkin and Patrick Breen (who deserved a nomination).
Best Performance by an Actor. One of the most difficult categories to predict. Mark Rylance (Jerusalem), Joe Mantello (The Normal Heart), or Brian Bedford (The Importance of Being Earnest) each gave remarkable performances. But given the recent buzz on The Normal Heart, Mantello may walk away with the award.
Anything Goes. Unlike previous years, this year was light in great musical revivals, except for Anything Goes, helmed by director/choreographer Kathleen Marshall. Starring the brassy Sutton Foster and a glorious, gleaming set by Derek McLane, this Cole Porter revival is perfect.

Follow Aaron Mettey on Twitter @AaroMets. For details on the week’s best events delivered to your inbox every Wednesday, sign up for our A&E and nightlife newsletter, The Weekender.