Super 8 director

J.J. Abrams presenting the movie Super 8 @ CinemaCon in Las Vegas

On a cool spring night in 1979, a group of kids head out to an abandoned railway station to shoot a zombie movie on their super 8 camera. Suddenly, a freight train roars by and hits a pickup truck resulting in a violent derailment and compromising the mysterious contents of its box cars. Soon, dogs are disappearing, electricity is spotty and something sinister stalks the woods.

Super 8 scene

Scene of the movie Super 8

These events are the intriguing set up to J.J. Abrams’ sci-fi thriller, “Super 8.” Unfortunately, it pays off with mundane results.

Newcomer Joel Courtney plays Joe Lamb, your average 13-year-old from small-town Ohio. Soon after losing his mom in a factory accident, Lamb and his friends, including Riley Griffiths and Elle Fanning, find themselves in the middle of a top-secret government clean up following the rail yard catastrophe.

J.J. Abrams strongest suit just might be his casting and handling of young actors. Joel Courtney, who has never been on a film set before, carries the movie like a seasoned veteran. He is empathetic and relatable, skillfully executing the casual scenes with Riley Griffiths and easily nailing more emotional scenes with his father, (Kyle Chandler) and his star-crossed girlfriend, Alice (Elle Fanning).

The younger sister of Dakota Fanning, Elle is superb as the neglected child of a missing mother and an alcoholic father. She is coming off another poised and riveting performance in last year’s “Somewhere” by Sofia Coppola, and has been appearing in movies since the age of two. Here she gives strong indication that as great as her big sister, Dakota, is, Elle may be the more impressive of the pair.

Super 8 + Somewhere

Somewhere: movie starring Elle Fanning, from the cast of Super 8

Riley Griffiths plays their friend, Charles, a hard-driven pre-teen film auteur. Griffiths is another unknown with no credits to his name and yet he delivers a memorable and affecting performance as the willful showman who seems destined for a career behind the camera.

The early sections of “Super 8” are sublime, recalling such coming-of-age classics as “Stand by Me” and early Spielberg movies like “E.T.,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and even “Jaws.”

Abrams exhibits exemplary work with the young cast, particularly in the ensemble scenes, as when they stop by a diner to discuss the mystery. Six kids fill the booth, talking over each other and carrying on various sidebar conversations as they exchange incidental insults and expressions. The scene is natural and believable in a way that Robert Altman coined years ago in movies like “Nashville” and “A Wedding.”

Super 8 director J.J. Abrams

J.J. Abrams on the set of Super 8

Their conversation centers on the details of the derailment: a former science teacher ran his truck in front of the train, miraculously surviving long enough to cough up clues about a conspiracy. Also, strange white cubes were found scattered about the site and something powerful smashed its way out of a steel freight car.

Abrams sets his movie up nicely with numerous mysteries and a cast of young characters that we care about. As the narrative unfolds, however, underwhelming explanations abound.

What is on the roll of Super 8 film the boys exposed at the crash site? A dark, indistinct glance at an unnatural creature. Not much of a surprise.

What of the strange white cube that dances with energy when on one’s looking? And what is driving the town’s dogs away? Stealing engines from under the hoods of cars? Causing electrical shortages around town? Is it subhuman? A previously unknown species? A scientific experiment gone wrong? A monster from outer space?

These questions elicit an anti-climactic sigh when finally answered and J.J. Abrams’ movie pushes toward an arresting climax that is unearned.

“Super 8” gradually becomes less and less interesting until it slides into clichés and tropes of the genre’s sci-fi roots. The new movie has about as many strengths in the first half as there are weaknesses in the second. As such, its strong points are hopelessly overwhelmed by poor storytelling and a lack of imagination.

*** (out of four)

Here some of Super 8‘s release dates: UK August 5, France August 9, Netherlands August 11, Brazil August 12, Spain August 19 and  Italy September 9.

Super 8 + Abrams

J.J. Abrams loves to make you understand his movies