Super 8

In theaters.

Back in college, studying film analysis, I read an essay analyzing the differences between sci-fi and horror. The distinction that most stuck with me was this: In horror scientists are bad guys and military men are good guys, while in sci-fi scientists wear the white hats and military men the black. It’s a vast generalization, of course, but it’s true more often than you’d think. Consider horror’s reckless mad scientist creating a monster the military is then forced to battle, and contrast that with the familiar sci-fi tale of a peaceable alien confronted by a trigger-happy army with a scientist in the background pleading that they hold their fire. The monster and the alien might look exactly the same, but the genre dictates how they behave and how they will be treated.

Super 8 initially looks and feels like a horror movie, with funhouse shocks and wire-tense silences and a menacing creature snatching at extras from the edge of the frame, never clearly visible and all the more frightening for it. But the horror-esque aesthetic is misleading, as the morality of those telltale characters soon makes clear. Ultimately 8 is sci-fi, more interested in exploring and finding connections than in “othering” and obliterating the enemy. Marrying a horror-style aesthetic with a sci-fi sensibility leads to some awkwardness—and the blasé dismissal of a few inconvenient plot points—but both halves, however ill-matched, possess some strength, and the movie’s curious sci-fi heart is disarmingly sweet.

A throwback to the innocent-kids-on-a-dangerous-adventure movies of the 1980s, Super 8 centers around a gang of convincingly dorky middle-schoolers filming a zombie movie over their summer vacation. Joe (Joel Courtney), a sensitive boy grieving the death of his mother a few months earlier, is charged with applying the monster makeup—a job that becomes more thrilling when the director enlists his classmate Alice (Elle Fanning), on whom Joe has an obvious crush, to play a small role in the short. The night they film her big scene at an isolated old train station, the kids witness the violent crash of a train with Air Force insignia. Terrified—and warned not to speak of what they’ve seen—they resolve to finish their movie, maybe even using the train wreckage as scenery and the military personnel hanging around their small town as unwitting extras. But Joe’s dad (Kyle Chandler), a sheriff’s deputy, isn’t happy to see his son hanging around Alice, whose father (Ron Eldard) he blames for his wife’s death, and the fallout from the crash is far worse than Joe and his friends could have imagined: something very strange is preying on Lillian, Ohio.

The monster plot doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny, but it has its moments. Writer-director J. J. Abrams’s obsession with lens flares might be annoying (no mights about that, actually), but he can still put together riveting action scenes, from the jaw-dropping train crash to the tantalizing near-glimpses of the rampaging creature to the final fiery war zone. After all, New York, Washington, Chicago, and Los Angeles all have been cinematically leveled for our summer-movie-going pleasure in recent years. It’s only fair that Small Town, USA, get the same treatment. (Joke! Joke!)

The best moments, though, are not the explosive set pieces but the scenes among the kids. The casting is great, pulling together half a dozen young actors who bicker and gawk and fidget and grin like real children rather than uncannily polished professional children. Abrams provides the ensemble with boisterous, well-observed overlapping dialogue, and they dig into it with relish. You get a real sense of how the boys relate to one another—and how the presence of a smart, pretty girl both disrupts and reinforces those relationships.

In one particularly strong scene between Joe and Alice, Abrams creates a quiet, adorably poetic visual metaphor for how frightening but irresistible a teenage crush can be. With that scene in mind after he saw the movie, my brother shot me a quick e-mail headed “The Real Alien Is The Teenage Girl”—a perfectly pithy summation for what Abrams is trying to do: In between screeching shocks and blinding lens flares (seriously, Abrams, enough already), 8 wants to tell a gentle little parable about how fraught yet rewarding new connections with the “other” can be.

That’s a lovely idea, but the movie can’t quite pull it off. The sticky, cheap residue of horror never totally dissipates, and Abrams hasn’t given nearly enough thought to his literal alien, which creates countless gaping holes in the plot. Those flaws keep Super 8 from the magical heights to which Abrams clearly aspires, but they can’t diminish the pleasure of its component parts: The retro, Jaws-like delay in showing the creature is both endearing and suspenseful. The child actors are terrifically persuasive—immature in the very best sense. And that one particular scene truly is one of the most enchanting depictions of tentative adolescent attraction I’ve ever seen on screen. The movie as a whole isn’t super, but for a few brief minutes, the film lives up to its name.