The kids - and J.J. Abrams' handling of them - are so money that for around 45 minutes of Super 8 I was enthralled by the prospect that I was watching one for the ages. Abrams delivers exactly what he knows we need as he introduces us to the residents of small-town Lillian, Ohio, circa 1979.
He sets up the tragic death of aspiring middle-school filmmaker Joe's mother, leaving him in the care of his father (Kyle Chandler), a sheriff's deputy who doesn't know nearly enough about his son. He establishes a loose, enjoyable dynamic between Charles (Riley Griffiths), Joe (Joel Courtney) and the other members of their film-crew posse. And he brings an almost effortless charm to Joe's wide-eyed crush on classmate Alice (Elle Fanning), newly recruited to act in Charles' movie.
Eventually it comes time for those kids to encounter...something. This begins with a magnificently staged train derailment near the depot where they're shooting a scene, an apocalypse of raining boxcars and fuel explosions. The kids barely escape with their lives - and with film of the incident that could put their lives in jeopardy.
Distractions keep tugging Super 8 away from what should have been its focus. Abrams drops signifiers of his time period without providing a compelling reason for why this story needed to be a period piece. He provides a tragic tension between Joe's father and Alice's alcoholic dad (Ron Eldard), but rather than adding Shakespearean heft, it simply feels like extra sentimental baggage.
It's maddening, because Super 8 keeps circling around to the stuff that could have made it a classic. One gem of a scene finds Alice, in full zombie makeup, practicing her blank-eyed undead shamble straight toward Joe. Even as she's nailing the creepy look, she's also got Joe transfixed as she leans in for his neck, leaving a smudge of lipstick. Abrams brilliantly captures the ambiguity of early adolescent romantic longing, which is also absolutely terrifying.
The film never devolves completely into rote genre action. Yet the more Abrams pulls the focus toward the hows and whys of his monster, the less charming the film becomes. And as Joe's story seems to build inevitably toward making peace with his dad - and both of them making peace with their grief - you begin to appreciate even more the subtlety with which executive producer Steven Spielberg handled Elliot's fatherlessness in E.T.
Abrams knows exactly how to play with our expectations of this kind of movie. But when he gets away from the strengths of his own story, he turns Super 8 into something merely pretty good.