I don't know what his actual involvement was behind the scenes - producer credits are about as anomalous as credits get - but Steven Spielberg's name features prominently in the marketing materials for Super 8, and even if he had nothing to do with it, this film owes such an incalculable debt to his definitive early efforts that had there not been some such tip of the 80s baseball cap, J. J. Abrams would probably have been looking at a lawsuit instead.
As Alasdair Harkness wrote in his review for The Scotsman - that is to say the actual newspaper - Super 8 is "the most authentic Spielberg film Spielberg never directed," which is one of those snappy summations I wish I'd come up with first. But I don't know that I'd agree with the rest of his write-up... particularly with the dismissive attitude Harkness adopts as regards Abrams' latest, the better to dovetail with the anecdote he seems determined to describe, of how J. J. Abrams met and emulated his hero You-Know-Who.
I would add, though I need not, that Harkness was far from the only critic to speak out against Super 8. In fact, though the reviews were almost uniformly glowing, at least on paper - the Tomatometer has it at 82% fresh at the time of this writing - looking through them, a worrying trend emerges: of tonally negative articles pared with positive scores. Positive, indeed near-perfect scores, because you'd have to be a completely off your rocker to conclude that Super 8 is anything less that pretty gosh-darned great.
So why the downturned tone? Because Super 8 is like a Steven Spielberg film? Well... sure, yes, absolutely. But so what if it is? How is that such a bad thing? Didn't the man make some great films, back in the day? And pray tell me: who's making them now? For the most part, Spielberg himself has long since graduated onto less commercial endeavours. There is thus a great gaping hole in the field of family-friendly films, and if anyone's up to filling it, it's J. J. Abrams. Super 8 is the proof of that pudding.
Leading a large and largely delightful cast, two young actors: newcomer Joel Courtney as Joe Lamb and Elle Fanning - Dakota's little sister, coming into her own after playing so many helpless children - as Alice Dainard. Joe is still coming to terms with the death of his mother, meanwhile his father Kyle has that to deal with, his job in the police force, and the responsibilities of being a single parent to boot. Needless to say, it's not been going great for either of the Lambs, but Joe at least finds a happy distraction in Alice, who he meets while helping his friend Charles Kaznyk (Riley Griffiths; a fine find) make an amateur zombie movie, in which Joe's kindred spirits - an unaccountably sad lass - is to star.
While they film a scene one evening, things take an unexpected turn when a train packed full of strange metal cubes - and TNT, apparently - crashes into a car parked on the tracks, and derails to the tune of ten thousand explosions. Thankfully the kids escape with hardly a scratch on 'em, and as luck would have it, they manage to capture the calamity on super 8. Little do they know their camera has also captured something else. Something... wicked?
Well, no. Not so much. Something misunderstood is more like it. But remember: it's the 70s. It's going to take three days and nights to develop their shocking home movie, and a lot can change in three days and nights, during which time the gang are as in the dark as anyone as to why the military have moved into Lillian, Ohio, or why people - people including one of their number - are suddenly going missing. Meanwhile a wildfire has caught, and it could burn their little town down to the ground.
There's conspiracy afoot in Super 8, impressive spectacle on a regular basis, a few cartoonish villains for us to love to hate, and, eventually, an extra-terrestrial too. Abrams direction is excellent, stylish but not so stylised as to take one out of the experience; the script - also by Abrams - is sound, if somewhat obvious on occasion, most egregiously in the movie's lastmost moments; and the effects, from the train derailment on out, look exceedingly expensive... which is to say good. The story is engaging, the characters are endearing, and the pacing is perfect. In short, Super 8 is classic family filmmaking.
It's also The Goonies meets Close Encounters of the Third Kind, with lens flare everywhere. The debt it owes to Steven Spielberg, not to mention Superman man Richard Donner, is felt in almost every frame, but I won't agree that that's an issue in and of itself. We are not, as an audience, somehow better than such things these days, or better at such things, and if that misguided notion isn't the cause of all the mean-spiritedness surrounding Super 8, then I don't know what is.
So Super 8 isn't particularly profound - specifically the subtext about learning to let go is a superficial sham - and it isn't any sense original, either, but nor is it dumb, or dull, or insultingly derivative. In fact I dare say it's a good movie. A very good movie, actually. But if it's one of the best films of 2011, and at a push, I think it probably is, then that's primarily because 2011 was such a stinker of a year at the cinema.