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The best kind of popcorn flick 

Even with clear antecedents, 'Super 8' stands on its own.

click to enlarge 'SUPER 8': Gabriel Basso, Ryan Lee, Joel Courtney and Riley Griffiths star.
  • 'SUPER 8': Gabriel Basso, Ryan Lee, Joel Courtney and Riley Griffiths star.

The less you know about "Super 8" before you see it, which you should, the more you'll enjoy it. The storytelling is that tight. The opening shot of the film, of a steel mill's accident-free-days sign being manually reset to "1," is a quiet obituary that expands into a fully told tragedy within another five shots and six lines. Director J.J. Abrams, infamous for piling up loose ends in "Lost," reveals just enough, at the right intervals, to make every new fact a revelation. The characters — centrally, a group of small-town middle-schoolers cobbling together a zombie thriller for a student film competition in 1979 — are likeable, believable, earnest and funny. The mystery propelling the story's events is intense and satisfying. People you know will soon list this among their favorite movies; it's a shoo-in for a Best Picture nomination this year. This is popcorn cinema at its finest.

Now then, onto spoilers. The accident at the mill killed, horribly, the mother of a sensitive boy named Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney, in his film debut) left now with his father, a well-meaning but distant sheriff's deputy. (He's played by Kyle Chandler, perhaps the most recognizable face in the entire cast, and best known for his work in "Friday Night Lights.") When school lets out for the summer, Joe's best buddy since forever, the bigger, bossier Charles (Riley Griffiths, another talented kid you've never seen before), enlists him and a few other friends to finally knock out this zombie flick. When Charles tells Joe that he has gotten Alice Dainard to play the ingenue, Joe swoons. Alice, played by Dakota's little sister Elle Fanning, is bold enough to swipe her dad's car for a night-location shoot at a train station, but she also has a bone with Joe, since her father (Ron Eldard), a drunk, keeps running afoul of Joe's dad, the cop. To Joe, that's irrelevant. When she settles down long enough to let him prep her make-up on location at a train station, Joe's gentle daubing alone tells us heartbreaking volumes about first childhood romances.

As they rehearse the scene at the station, a train appears in the distance. The crew scrambles, with Charles yelling "production value!" and racing to catch the train in the shot. As it storms past, only Joe notices a truck speeding to an intersection, turning, and driving straight at the train. In the head-on, the train derails (spectacularly) and then ... strange things start happening. The Air Force arrives to play hero/villain. Pets flee the county. Microwaves and car engines go missing in scores. And like the boys, you can't wait for their Super-8 Kodak film of the accident to finally get developed. To say more really would muck up the fun.

With Steven Spielberg's producer credit above the title on the movie posters, it's easy to compare "Super 8" to some of his early, kid-centric summer blockbusters (not least for its depiction of government force, "E.T." comes to mind). The teens' fellowship also recalls "Stand by Me" or even, for several reasons of plot and theme, Stephen King's "It." Certain angles hark to classic horror films of the '40s and '50s, overhead reaction shots that put a frightened screamer before us and give the audience the sensation that some awful thing is Right Behind Us.

But for its classic feel, truly "Super 8" is its own universe. For once in these bloated summertime sci-fi explosionfests, the coming-of-age drama that provides cover for the action and suspense doesn't feel like an afterthought — indeed, the characters truly are the story. When you think back on the movie, you may find the most memorable scenes are those in which 13- and 14-year-old actors are actually talking with one another. This is an action movie, and at times a quite intense one, but there's nothing more exciting than being there with Joe when he applies zombie makeup to Alice, coaches her on how to act undead and watches, heart swelling, as she throws herself into being the scariest damn zombie ever. There are lots of quality explosions here, but the muted fireworks are even better.

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