I watched Super 8 twice in one night earlier this week, and the mere fact that I wasn't bored at all during the second viewing (in IMAX!) obviously indicates something positive about the movie.
That said ... I wish I could report that I loved the movie. I wish I could honestly say that it was automatically my favorite movie of the year to date and a strong, immediate candidate to still be my favorite movie of the year by the time the year was over. I wish I could say that it lived up to the promise of its awesome trailer (the full one, not the teaser from months and months and months ago) and truly rekindled the Spielberg-suburbiana majesty of his films circa 1977-1985.
I wish that were the case, but, sad to say, it isn't.
You will note that during none of this have I said Super 8 is a bad movie. It isn't; it's really rather good, in fact, and while it doesn't live up to the (possibly unrealistic) expectations put upon it by myself and by many others, it's still a solid sci-fi/adventure flick.
A spoiler-free review follows the jump.
First: the kids. J.J. Abrams did a phenomenal job of casting the kids in this flick. All of them are good, and some of them are flat-out terrific. The film's two lead roles are played by Joel Courtney and Elle Fanning, and they are both superb. I don't know where Courtney came from, but he's a real find. He holds his own emotionally in scenes with Kyle Chandler, which seems like it is probably no simple task. As Joe Lamb, he's playing all kinds of notes in this movie: he's by turns somber, sheepish, terrified, furious, intuitive, and sometimes plain ole' playful. This is definitely one of the best juvenile performances I've seen in recent memory.
As for Fanning ... she's, if anything, even better than Courtney; in fact, she kinda owns the movie. Her sister, Dakota -- whom you might remember from War of the Worlds -- is a superb actress, too, but Dakota has always struck me as being strong in terms of technical proficiency, but less strong in terms of emotionally inhabiting her characters. However, Elle, playing Alice Dainard, has a charming -- and very convincing -- sense of realism about her performance; she seems to truly be her character, and most of the movie's best scenes involve her.
The rest of the kids are good, too, and I was especially amused by Gabriel Basso, who looks a lot like Freaks and Geeks-era Martin Starr ... so much so that his character's name (probably a coincidence) is Martin.
A large part of the movie revolves around the notion of a film Joe's friend Charles (well-played by Riley Griffiths) is making in the hopes of winning an amateur monster-movie contest. The best parts of the film, hands down, involve the making of this movie. There is some fairly hilarious stuff here, and the love Abrams feels for this type of childhood "art" is in no way rendered mean-spirited by his simultaneous ability to show how very ridiculous it is, this movie they're all making. I suspect that any monster-movie enthusiast who ever decided to make his or her own movie by getting a bunch of friends together is going to fall in love with Super 8, if for no reason other than the movie-within-a-movie elements.
Amongst other things to love, I would have to say that the movie, visually, is gorgeous. This should come as no surprise; it was shot by Larry Fong, who did outstanding stylized work on 300, Watchmen, and the mostly awful Sucker Punch. Don't blame Sucker Punch on Larry Fong, though; it looked beautiful, and so does Super 8. However, here, he proves that he's just as good at lighting and shooting on real sets and on location. Again, this is no real surprise; Fong's background also includes -- thanks, IMDb! -- serving as the DP on eight episodes during the first season of Lost.
Much was made pre-release of Abrams' attempt to invoke late-'70s/early-'80s Spielberg movies like E.T. and Close Encounters and Poltergeist, and my final thoughts for this review involve saying that by and large, Abrams succeeded relatively well in this attempt. I was reminded at times of Close Encounters, and of The Goonies, and of both Back to the Future and Gremlins in some ways.
The problem with that is this: if you're going to intentionally remind me of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, you'd better have some great stuff lines up to show me. Because if you don't, then odds are good that I'm going to be disappointed.
Which is exactly what I feel by Super 8. A talented director doing a loving homage to the work of one of his favorite directors, being produced by that director...? It should have been a home-run. As is, I think it's merely a double at best; and while a two-base hit is still a better result than you're apt to get most weeks at the old multiplex, it's a bit of a bummer when you were expecting to see the ball go sailing right out of the park.