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Character, story, thrills: 'Super 8' does it all

by Tyler Wilson
| June 17, 2011 9:00 PM

J.J. Abrams, master of creating twisty television ("Lost," "Alias") and rebooting exhausted franchises ("Star Trek," "Mission: Impossible III") has now delivered the must-see blockbuster of the summer. "Super 8" delivers moments of spectacle and suspense but never forgets the fuel of any good movie - rich character detail.

The 1970s-set story includes a spectacular train crash and mysterious creatures that go bump in the night, but "Super 8" is more a coming-of-age tale about a group of middle school-aged amateur filmmakers shooting a zombie movie.

Makeup artist Joe (Joel Courtney of Moscow) recently lost his mother in a freak factory accident, and his relationship with his police officer dad (Kyle Chandler, in stern "Friday Night Lights" mode) makes for a vacant home life.

There's also the bossy, loudmouth director, Charles (Riley Griffiths), pyro-maniac cameraman Cary (Ryan Lee) and an alluring, reluctant leading lady (the superb Elle Fanning, younger sister of Dakota). The majority of "Super 8" follows these kids, and their dynamic is energetic and genuine in a way "The Goonies" did it back in 1985.

After they witness a horrific train crash, the kids begin to investigate a series of strange occurrences around town, including runaway dogs and missing appliances. A secretive military patrol enters town, consuming the energy of Joe's dad at a time when the kid desperately needs a parent to pay attention.

The suspense structure of "Super 8" centers on the film's climatic big reveal, and in that sense, the creature is less consequential to the success of "Super 8" than summer thrill-seekers probably expect. Abrams, working from his own script and teaming with master-of-spectacle producer Steven Spielberg, uses the less-is-more approach of "Jaws," the first true summer blockbuster that generated suspense without seeing much of any shark.

In fact, Abrams makes a number of Spielbergian creative choices in cinematography, lighting and pacing that evoke "E.T.," "Jurassic Park" and "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," all of which play like inspired homage rather than tacky imitation.

"Super 8" feels different than most summer blockbusters, probably because it feels in ways movies don't anymore. Abrams isn't afraid of striking sentimental notes because the story and acting can support those softer moments.

Pity the film is on pace to gross only a fraction of the season's louder, lazier films like "The Hangover Part II" and "Pirates of the Caribbean." "Super 8" is the event film that, for once, delivers on the promise of its marketing.

Stay in the dark about "Super 8" until you see it. The experience is not to be missed.

Grade: A

Ticket Stubs is sponsored by the Hayden Cinema Six Theater. Showtimes at www.HaydenCinema6.com. Tyler Wilson can be reached at twilson@cdapress.com.