The title of "Super 8", director J.J. Abrams new CGI summer extravaganza, is actually a cute ironic joke. In an age where a person can make a video on their cell phone, it's funny to think that, not too long ago, folks actually had to load 8 mm film into a hand-winded Bolex camera, or some other kind of clunky apparatus, in order to film something. The fact that the title of Abrams' film is Super 8, and the whole thing appears to be shot with an IMAX camera and then doodled on relentlessly with computer images; is a darling allusion to the concept that movies are a magical medium on any format as long as the magic is made by the most essential special effect in the world: Imagination.
It's all the more fitting that the film is about a Goonies-like gang of prepubescent auteurs trying to shoot the awesomest mutant zombie flick ever. The writer/director, who's as bossy as David Lean, is Charles (Riley Griffiths) and even though he's got the home-made light kit, the boom mike, the make up designer and the necessary will power to make a great film; he's gonna need "production values" if he wants to win a local film festival. His wish is granted when a midnight shoot at a train station turns into a most epic train derailment and explosive calamity. But what seems like an accident at first -- turns out to be a covert government operation involving the transportation of one of the CIA's best-kept secrets.
While happily immersed in the wonder of the supernatural, "Super 8" is sure to keep at least one toe in the real world at all times. The film's protagonist is Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney), a sweet kid grieving his mother's death and dealing with the growing distance it's caused between him and his father, Deputy Jack (Kyle Chandler). One of the cleverest things about the movie is its self-knowingness. Charles' astutely realizes that without a wife for his zombie-hunting, detective main character, the audience won't give-a-hoot if some flesh-hungry, undead creature devours him. Abrams shrewdly takes his own advice and casts Elle Fanning (Somewhere) as Alice -- she joins the gang to play the wife, but becomes more tween love interest than anything else. Just in case we didn't care about Joe Lamb (or that special locket his mother used to wear), a recently deceased parental and a burgeoning puppy love are there to ensure our sympathies.
Though, I do wish we were a little more invested in Joe Lamb. It would have made the film's syrupy sweet final moments even sweeter. But "Super 8" has a lot of other things on its mind. Steven Spielberg -- a man who famously shot super 8 war films as a wee lad -- produces and J.J. Abrams is obviously smitten with his phenomenal cohort. Everything from kids on bikes taking on a whole occupation force of shady government stooges to a mysterious monster kept out of frame and out of sight until the last thrill-filled minutes, made me think of old Spielberg and his immeasurable impact on the industry. Yet the way Spielberg has the ability to make fantasy so palpable you can reach out from your seat and touch it, alas, remains merely an aspiration for J.J. Abrams.
But the beauty of Abrams' work in "Super 8" is that emulation is not only the name of the game, but also the heart of it all. Homage to George A. Romero and his fear-the-government, Cold War shtick, run rampant, both as a part of the kids' hilarious, "shoe-string", grind house wannabe; and as a part of the film's narrative fabric -- when amoral military phantoms quarantine their small Ohio town. Yet, somehow, Abrams' film comes off as neither parody nor pretentious pastiche, but a product of passion, and as the crashes thud and tears flow with an extra dose of loving exuberance, we can't help but be carried away by it. And that's the whole point: The kids have found themselves running amok in the big-budget, high octane movie of their wildest cinematic dreams. J.J. Abrams was once just like them and he remembers what it was like to be a kid dreaming of what he could do with a large crew and a studio budget. He may have since switched from super 8 to IMAX, but he hasn't forgotten that imagination is still the most magical resource there is.