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Super 8

An entertaining monster movie that ends in a hug

Super 8
It just got real: (from left) Gabriel Basso, Ryan Lee, Joel Courtney and Riley Griffiths confront a dramatic development.

A small mill-town in Ohio, 1979: Six middle-school pals are making a zombie movie one night when they witness a very mysterious train derailment. A survivor swears them to silence. Meanwhile, weird stuff starts happening in town: Cars go dead, dogs run away, the sheriff goes missing -- and a military clean-up crew moves in.

"What on earth?!" is the central query of Super 8, written and directed by J.J. Abrams (Cloverfield, TV's Lost). But the purpose of this kid-based sci-fi comedy-adventure seems to be celebrating the genre that the film's producer, Steven Spielberg, helped define: This is straight-up, un-ironic homage to such matinee faves as E.T., Close Encounters, Stand By Me and The Goonies (with a bonus nod to classic alien-invasion movies of the 1950s).

The bones of Abrams' script reflect his affection for multi-layered storytelling. There are three films here: the kids' Super 8 movie in production, the movie about the resourceful kids and the movie about the clueless adults. It offers a decent house-of-mirrors concept: The kids are making a horror movie, playing the adult roles, while around them, a real-life monster-conspiracy plot is unfolding and leaving the real adults helpless. Abrams effectively intertwines the two stories; the kids even use the ongoing real events as "production values" backdrops for their film. 

For a hot summer night, this film makes a perfectly decent piece of entertainment (see it at a drive-in for extra nostalgia). Super 8 has a fresh-faced cast; no product placement (unless you count an anachronistic Walkman); a lively pace; and the good sense to keep most of the mystery shrouded until the final reels.

It's all thrills and laughs until somebody -- that's you, J.J. -- gets sappy. The end was a big groaner for me, with so much overdone, super-shiny sentimentality that it felt like amateur hour with a zillion-dollar budget. Also, after so much set-up, the conclusion was hurried, and relied on convenient escapes through a plot hole or two. 

Thus, your appreciation of Super 8 will likely be in direct proportion to how affectionately you recall E.T. and Stand By Me, and how soft you are for Spielbergian "wonderment." As a product of the cynical 1970s (not on display in this polyester fantasia), I found such movies cloying and uninteresting upon their release, and am in no hurry to revisit the genre. Call me old-old-school, but I don't like my monster movies to end in a gee-whiz hug and soaring strings. But be sure to see the very end, when the kids' completed movie screens during the credits.

Super 8
Written and directed by J.J. Abrams
Starring Joel Courtney, Riley Griffiths, Elle Fanning, Kyle Chandler