Movie review: 'Super 8' is a big rip-off

Al Alexander

Tonight we’re going to party like it’s 1979. That’s the rote theme of “Super 8,” J.J. Abrams’ version of a Steven Spielberg tribute band planting a big wet one on the hinny of the godfather of spacemen movies. It copies Spielberg like “Hangover 2” copies “The Hangover” in creating a bit of unwelcome déjà vu that will have theatergoers running for the exits screaming “rip-off.”

And to think, things started off so promisingly when J.J. met Steven, and they decided to hop inside the DeLorean and head back to the future to create an E.T movie just like “E.T.” It would ooze late ’70s nostalgia and feature those tried-and-true Spielbergian touches like cute kids, single parents and a quiet community torn asunder by a Gestapo-like invasion by the U.S. military. Oh, yeah, and a misunderstood alien just wanting to go home.

On paper, “Super 8” appeared to be the sleeper hit of the summer, not to mention a likely Oscar contender. But as is the case with most of our hopes and wishes, we’ve been left high and dry by Spielberg and his lackey, who was so busy cribbing off “E.T.” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” that he forgot to inject a semblance of soul.

The film is as dead inside as the zombies in the Super 8 movie our six Ohio middle school heroes (one of whom, against all odds, looks just like Henry Thomas from “E.T.”) are making during their not-bummer summer of 1979. Queue a few bars of ma ma ma “My Sharona,” crank up that newfangled Walkman and fire up a doobie, cause it’s nostalgia time. All that’s missing is John Travolta and his castmates from “Grease.”

Well, that’s not all that’s missing. There’s also the matter of an engaging story and characters that are more than one-note stereotypes. That means you, hippie behind the film-developing counter; and you, drunken laborer sporting the rattiest looking blond wig ever; but kudos to you, Ron Eldard, for having the guts (or desperation) to slip it on.

It’s as if the characters were spit out of a factory; just like the one in which our young hero’s mother has been crushed to death in as “Super 8” opens. You didn’t think Abrams would leave out the dead mom, did you? Anyway, her demise provides for many a cloying moment spattered between numerous shots of the military overrunning the town and a mostly unseen alien ransacking homes, villagers and credibility.

No wonder the movie goes nowhere. The alien has stolen all the car engines, not to mention the microwave ovens, electrical wire and every other tinny object it can get its six pods on. That, of course, leaves the fate of the town in the grimy little hands of a passel of Hollywood kids led by Elle Fanning (excellent as the cute girl from the wrong side of the tracks) and the Henry Thomas clone, Joel Courtney, as the grieving son of the deputy sheriff.

Their names are Alice Dainard and Joe Lamb, the story’s 14-year-old versions of Romeo and Juliet, who despite stern warnings from their single dads (Eldard and Kyle Chandler) to stay apart, keep getting together out of necessity due to the production of their amateur zombie picture (directed by a rotund Riley Griffiths), and because of the pesky alien and the obstreperous military men (led by Noah Emmerich) threatening to further demolish their broken homes.

Watching them experience the pangs of first love is actually pretty sweet, as Joe, a fledgling movie makeup dude, applies blush and lipstick to his leading lady’s porcelain face. The pair, thanks mostly to Fanning, share real chemistry, and the moments when their characters express their yearning to break free of lives saturated with small-town ennui are quite touching. But Abrams, who both wrote and directed “Super 8” like it was another episode of his confounding series “Lost,” barely acknowledges it amid his eagerness to blow everything up real good, beginning with the massive train derailment that takes up about 10 of the film’s first 30 minutes.

The wreck is not only overdone, it’s preposterous, as Abrams unloads his massive special-effects budget on showing rail car after rail car hurdling through the air, smashing into each other and nearly taking the heads off our six-pack of pint-sized protagonists, who also include Gabriel Basso (“The Big C”) as the brainy nerd Martin; Ryan Lee as the buck-toothed pyro techniques expert Cary; and Zach Mills as the nondescript kid fading into the woodwork Preston.

What is the cause of this mini armageddon? Why it’s a pickup truck, of course, driven by none other than the mischievous teens’ mysterious biology teacher. What a coincidence! And who knew that a little old pickup could inflict so much damage on a train traveling with a gazillion times the force? Well, at least in Abrams’ head the physics are possible.

Only thing is, I’m buying it about as much as I’m buying Chandler (the stern but righteous dad on “Friday Night Lights”) as Joe’s stern but righteous deputy dad. It’s as if Abrams instructed Chandler to just do his “Friday Night Lights” thing for the entire movie, sans the gravitas and heart. Chandler could essentially do the part in his sleep, and I swear there are moments when he does, especially after all semblance of believability has been tossed out the door once he embeds himself inside the invading military without anyone batting an eye.

Still, even though the story is as flat as it is cliché, “Super 8” remains super to look at thanks to Abrams’ decision to film his opus in glorious, sparkling 2-D. I’d almost forgotten how bright and appealing movies can be when freed from the dark and dingy 3-D dungeon. Thank director of photography Larry Fong (“Watchmen”) for that, as he places an aura around the little mill town of Liliani, Ohio, that instantly reminds you of Spielberg’s best spacemen movies, right down to the camera angles and shot compositions.

Which raises the key question: Why settle for an imitation when the real thing is readily available online, on cable and through Netflix at a fraction of the cost? Sure, the production values are superior on “Super 8,” but it possesses none of the passion or meticulous character development key to Spielberg’s early works. It’s an OK way to spend an evening at the movies, albeit instantly forgettable, but the cheap attempt at an “E.T.” type ending only intensifies your hunger for the real thing.

It’s like settling for a Gucci knockoff, or the Monkees instead of the Beatles, Justin Bieber instead of Michael Jackson, Aerosmith instead of The Rolling Stones, or J.J. Abrams instead of Steven Spielberg.

Reach Al Alexander at aalexander@ledger.com.

SUPER 8 (PG-13 for language, drug use and intense sci-fi action.) Cast includes Kyle Chandler, Ron Eldard, Elle Fanning, Joel Courtney and Noah Emmerich. Written and directed by J.J. Abrams. 2.5 stars out of 4.