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