Super 8 / J.J. Abrams / 2011 / twostar

Active Ingredients: Period setting; Sympathetic characters; Child casting; Train sequence
Side Effects: Emotional backstories; Over-sentimentality; No sense of danger

Billed as a return to the exciting yet tender family blockbusters of the 70s and 80s, Super 8 is a calculated charmer. A group of adolescent filmmakers, outsiders with a precocious, aw-shucks passion for making movies, witness a train wreck that unleashes a secret which the scary military men will stop at nothing to conceal. The film is at its best early on, when it has the luxury to establish both a convincing group of young characters and a vague promise of danger and adventure. Joel Courtney as the film’s withdrawn and sensitive protagonist in particular earns the audience’s sympathy. His budding friendship with the cool girl at school (Elle Fanning) is heartfelt and delicately handled.

However, as the film continues both its sentimentality and its action lose focus. The film is over-stuffed with side characters, each with a one-dimensional emotional backstory. Believable characters and interactions are enough, they don’t need excess baggage to win our affection. Similarly, Abrams struggles to build on the excitement of the train wreck. We develop no real connection to the threats the kids face – the creature or the military – so the film’s resolution is unsatisfying. We don’t need to see the creature, but we do need to understand its threat. Still, its refreshing to see an old-fashioned adventure that pays as much attention to character as to action.