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      Super 8: The IMAX Experience Review

      Super 8: The IMAX Experience poster

      Super 8: The IMAX Experience

      Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune

      Set in 1979 during the summer of "Alien" and "Breaking Away," "Super 8" evokes a time before smartphones and YouTube, when making movies with your pals (inspired by the last five movies you saw at the two-screen theater out by the shopping center) took some effort, risked serious social isolation and constituted a high, rarefied calling.

      It's a good time, this movie -- a critter picture conjoined with a coming-of-age picture. While its more obvious '70s and '80s influences (starting with "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" and "E.T.," and continuing on to the less vibrant realm of "The Goonies") pack the frame very tightly, writer-director J.J. Abrams brings so much affection to the project that the results reveal both the film geek he surely was as a Spielberg-lovin' kid, and the hard-charging populist he has become.

      With "Alias" and "Lost" on TV, and the "Star Trek" reboot on film, Abrams has proved himself a savvy combiner of existing genre elements. The same holds true for "Super 8," which is set in a hilly Ohio steel town (filmed in Weirton, W.Va., where Michael Cimino filmed much of "The Deer Hunter") that manages to look cozy yet somehow ripe for trouble.

      The trouble begins straight off. Joe, the young teenage son of a local police officer, has lost his mother in a mill accident. The boy's insecure, overbearing friend, Charles, is making a zombie movie and has persuaded the elusive, slightly older cute girl, Alice (Elle Fanning), to join the shoot. One night out on the local train station platform, the kids film a scene while, behind them, a vehicle drives onto the tracks just as an Air Force train bears down, hard. One massive derailment later (caught on film, Zapruder-like), the strange cargo confined to a particular boxcar has made its presence known.

      What is going on? The dogs are running away. Everybody's machine parts and appliances and car engines begin to vanish. Young Joe has an odd Rubik's Cube-like piece of metal from the crash site. Surely that provides a clue. The police chief, played by Kyle Chandler with easy sincerity, doesn't like Joe, played by the excellent and soulful newcomer Joel Courtney, wasting his time with "kids who run around with cameras and monster makeup." In the context of a movie-besotted movie like "Super 8," the cop's lucky to survive another reel after saying something like that.

      Abrams knits together the ordinary stories of the mill town's inhabitants in a way that feels dramatic without showing their contrivances too obviously. And his casting of Courtney and Fanning was fortuitous, though Abrams' banter for the supporting kids grows tiresome in that "Goonies" way.

      Without blowing too much, Abrams runs into interesting matters of homage versus rip-off as "Super 8" progresses into the full-on "Close Encounters"/"E.T." part of its story. Will early 21st century teenagers and their nostalgic parents care about any of that? I doubt it. Like "Cloverfield," which was clever but offered less to care about in terms of the humans at stake, "Super 8" plays hide-and-seek with its visiting adversary for as long as possible. Abrams knows how not to bore an audience; he's exceptionally pace-y (though he misjudges the derailment sequence slightly; it's too overwhelmingly digital in its pile-on effects). Yet check out Spielberg's "Close Encounters" again sometime. It's remarkable how loosey-goosey and unformed parts of that wonderful film are, and how it doesn't hammer you every second. Until its charming end credits, "Super 8" never slows down, for better or worse. But it works.

      MPAA rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of sci-fi action and violence and some drug use).

      Running time: 1:52.

      Cast: Kyle Chandler (Jackson Lamb); Elle Fanning (Alice Dainard); Joel Courtney (Joe Lamb); Gabriel Basso (Martin); Noah Emmerich (Nelec); Ron Eldard (Louis Dainard); Riley Griffiths (Charles); Ryan Lee (Cary); Zach Mills (Preston).

      Credits: Written and directed by J.J. Abrams; produced by Steven Spielberg, Abrams and Bryan Burk. A Paramount Pictures release.

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