Filmmaking juggernauts team up for 1970s thriller

J.J. Abrams keeps on coming back to a box he received in his childhood.

As a boy, Abrams was given a ‘mystery box’ — unknown items inside a box labeled only with a question mark. Abrams, now nearly 45, has never opened it, but has said the box’s tug on his imagination greatly influences his work to this day.

Keep rolling · A handful of young movie buffs stumble on the footage of a lifetime when an unbelievable disaster happens in view of their camera while shooting a submission for a film contest in small-town Ohio. - Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Super 8, Abrams’ latest, is no exception. Marketed as mysteriously as any of his past works — television series Lost and Cloverfield (2008) included — Abrams’ first turn as writer, director and producer of a feature film presents audiences with a mystery box of their own.

When ‘opened,’ Super 8 proves a flawed but spectacular collection of nostalgia, mystery, humor, emotion, legitimate horror and, most importantly, a type of blockbuster filmmaking not often seen in today’s box office-driven movie landscape.

Abrams, aided by the production of Steven Spielberg, tells the story of intrepid middle-school filmmakers bent on the highest possible production value for their submission to a local movie contest in 1979 middle America.

Charles and Joe (newcomers Riley Griffiths and Joel Courtney, who are themselves fantastically cast in Super 8) are after the perfect cast and location for a CBS Radio Mystery Theater-inspired zombie flick. After convincing Alice Dainard (Elle Fanning) to play the female lead and provide a mode of transportation to the all-important train station set, the duo and its ragtag group of friends (all of whom turn in unexpectedly good performances) are ready to put together the romantic climax of their short at the station.

It’s then, in a scene that both literally and figuratively screams “production value!” that Super 8 presents the contents of its mystery box to audiences as well as the unsuspecting population of small town Lillian, Ohio.

The Lillian community that emerges post-incident epitomizes the Cold War-inspired fear that engulfed the nation during that time — an achievement with Spielberg’s nostalgic fingerprints all over it — and perfectly captures the family dynamic and cultural feel of the latter part of that decade.

The expected government secrecy plotline interferes with Joe’s father, local deputy Jackson Lamb (Kyle Chandler), and his investigation into what exactly happened, only pushing viewers further onto the edge of their seats.

What follows is an homage to the monster and alien flicks that obviously influenced Abrams as a film-obsessed kid, from the darkness in Jaws to the wonderment and emotion in E.T.

The audience doesn’t get a look at what emerges from the box until well into the second half of the film, but the fear is palpable nonetheless, a testament to Abrams’ ability behind the camera.

Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures

A standout scene at a gas station involving the sheriff on the outskirts of town shows just what the film achieves. The audience never gets a good look at any of the “action,” but it knows exactly what happened.

The easy comparison here would be to Cloverfield, where Abrams used a shaky cam approach to convince the audience they were seeing a mystery unfold in real time. Abrams instead makes the decision here — and the correct one at that — to present a movie that looks like it was made today, but feels like it was made in 1979.

And unlike Cloverfield, which desperately tried to connect to its audience by splicing a lost-love narrative into the first-person footage, Super 8’s emotional hook — the telegraphed Joe-Alice love connection in the face of emotional turmoil and feuding parents — works on a variety of levels, to the point where the mystery becomes of secondary concern to the audience.

Unfortunately, as the movie comes to a close, Super 8 loses its footing in its attempt to close these two storylines. Wrapping things up has never really been Abrams’ strong suit, and the clichéd and forced ending to the mystery plotline does leave something to be desired.

But the emotion does stick with you. Abrams’ directing coupled with work from some old standbys — Larry Fong’s (Lost) cinematography and Michael Giacchino’s (Lost, Star Trek) original score — does enough to render Abrams’ underwhelming wrap-up writing forgivable and will leave most satisfied.

If he were to ever open his own mystery box, Abrams would forever limit the infinite possibilities of his most talked-about possession. In Super 8, Abrams might have slipped by opening the film’s box too early, diminishing the infinite possibility to a decidedly less intriguing completion a bit too soon, flaming out just before the finish line. But on the way there, Abrams managed to create a film well worth a place beside those it so openly hopes to honor.