Gabriel Basso, Ryan Lee, Joel Courtney, Riley Griffiths, Super 8

Francois Duhamel/Paramount Pictures

Review in a Hurry: Remember how the writers of Lost kept saying something to the effect of "It's not about the mystery, it's about the characters"? Keep that in mind if you go to Super 8 expecting a monster movie. Writer-director J.J. Abrams' muddled tribute to '80s Spielberg does indeed feature well-rounded human beings, but mostly forgets to put them in an interesting story.

The Bigger Picture: We hate to say it, but while Abrams was trying to channel E.T., The Goonies, and The Monster Club, he accidentally ended up reminding us of M. Night Shyamalan instead. The faux-secretive marketing should have clued us in, but there's little doubt after the long, slow build-up that goes out of its way to avoid showing us the thing we really want to see.

Especially when it's followed by some horribly ham-handed exposition, by way of old recordings that conveniently pause for the benefit of the contemporary characters listening to them. Not to mention an unpleasantly stupid final revelation that makes much of what came before feel illogical.

So what's this thing actually about? Not a lot more than you likely already know. Four kids—one motherless, one fat, one a pyromaniac, and one a wuss—set out to make a zombie movie that they can enter in a short-film contest. This being 1979, their medium of choice is super 8. It's also the medium of choice for home movies and government files, both of which feature in the plot later.

To obtain the use of a car, the gang manage to persuade a girl (Elle Fanning, pretty much the only familiar actor here) to join their cast, and they're surprised when she turns out to be really good. But right when her key take is happening, a train goes by, and crashes in grand style. Amid the debris can be found strange metallic objects. Also, something has escaped. If you surmise that the kids' camera accidentally caught it on film, you're already way ahead of them.

Abrams spends most of the movie on the kids' interpersonal dynamics, love of horror movies, and small-town life, while sadistically keeping the whatever-it-is creature offscreen as if this were a 1950s movie where the monster suit might look dangerously cheap unless confined to the shadows. When we finally get a good look, the ensuing moments play like pale imitations of Tobe Hooper's 1986 Invaders from Mars remake.

It's a shame, because the kids are reasonably compelling, and we'd care more about their personal stuff if this were not a movie with a giant creature on the loose. The balance is all wrong. However, if you think you might relate in a very personal way (were you making cheesy home movies and painting monster model kits in '79?), it may hit you just right. Stay through the end credits for the best part.

The 180—a Second Opinion: The good thing about Abrams selling his movies on the hook of a high-concept mystery is that the cast is filled with unknowns, which makes it harder to predict who'll die.

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