(director/writer: J. J. Abrams; cinematographer: Larry Fong; editors: Mary Jo Markey/Maryann Brandon; music: Michael Giacchino; cast: Joel Courtney (Joe Lamb), Elle Fanning (Alice Dainard), Riley Griffiths (Charles), Ryan Lee (Cary), Kyle Chandler (Jackson Lamb), Ron Eldard (Louis Dainard), Noah Emmerich (Col. Nelec), Gabriel Basso (Martin), Zach Mills (Preston), Glynn Turman (Dr. Woodward), Joel McKinnon Miller (Mr. Kaznyk), Jessica Tuck (Mrs. Kaznyk), David Gallagher (Donny), Brett Rice (Sheriff), Caitriona Balfe(Elizabeth Lamb); Runtime: 112; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producers: Steven Spielberg/Bryan Burk/J. J. Abrams; Paramount Pictures; 2011)

It’s just the type of kid-friendly pic its producer Steven Spielberg loves to make.

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Director-writer J. J. Abrams(“Star Trek”/”Mission: Impossible III“) presents an entertaining film that’s nostalgic for the tacky science fiction films of the 1950s and the Spielberg ones of the 1970s and 1980s. The good-humored film is about some geeky high school kids in 1979, with a fine sense of wonderment, who want to make a zombie pic with their cheap Super 8 camera and then run into a series of movie-like horror adventures outside their film but they continue filming (leaving you with the impression there’s no difference between their small project Super 8 movie and the actual film’s big budget Imax pic, except for the better equipment in the big film and that the small film is more inspired). It’s a sweet pic, of sympathetic go-getter suburban kids threatened by authoritarian adults (kids who want their dads to communicate with them and not just give them orders) while smothered with love by their nurturing moms, who if no longer there still affect them greatly. It’s just the type of kid-friendly pic its producer Steven Spielberg loves to make and it serves as a homage to him. Abrams wears his heart on his sleeves as he shows us his deep love and affection for popcorn disaster films and wishes to pass this joy onto the viewer, hoping to get us to revisit the type of films he loved when growing up as a kid.

It’s set in the small rustbelt town of Lillian, Ohio, during the summer of ’79. Elizabeth, the beloved factory working wife of deputy sheriff Jack Lamb (Kyle Chandler), has just died in a freak accident in the steel mill (crushed to death in a machine). Their 14-year-old son Joe (Joel Courtney) is emotionally scarred from the loss, but escapes into a fantasy world by building model trains and reading monster magazines. Joe, as the makeup and special effects guy, hooks up to make a zombie movie to compete in a local youth film festival with obnoxious, bossy and chubby aspiring filmmaker Charles (Riley Griffiths) and fellow middle-class middle school dorks: the actor guy Martin (Gabriel Basso), the lighting guy Preston (Zach Mills) and the peppy firebug cameraman Cary (Ryan Lee). The movie driven camera owner and director/writer, Charles, persuades the pretty Alice Dainard (Elle Fanning), a decent girl from the wrong side of town, living with her irresponsible single parent alcoholic father (Ron Eldard), to act in it as a romantic lead opposite Martin. Joe is smitten with Alice and makes time with her when he gently applies her makeup, but both of the kid’s single parent fathers do not permit them to see each-other. Jack blames Alice’s drunken dad for his wife’s loss, as he couldn’t make his workshift the day of the accident and Elizabeth had to replace him.

Filming at midnight by the town railroad,a pickup truck, driven by the school’s science teacher (Glynn Turman), deliberately stalls on the tracks and causes the derailment of a train carrying air force supplies. The kids get the whole thing on film. This accident sets off a catastrophe for the town. The sinister air force, under control of the bug-eyed Col. Nelec (Noah Emmerich), comes out of nowhere and tries to keep secret what it’s up to. They secretively clean-up the accident site that’s strewn with metal cubes and refuse to let the police help. This accident sets off a chain of events such as a power loss, the mysterious stealing of numerous car engines, flying cars, dogs in fright running away to nearby counties, townies (including the sheriff) disappearing and the forced evacuation of the town because of a fire caused by the air force. It’s only when the kids recover the film and develop it after three days, do we learn what causes the air force to go fascist on the town. As the peaceful ideal suburban town goes into a meltdown and tanks take over its streets, this allows the narrative logic to become the battleground’s first casualty. But, that’s not such a bad thing, as the cheesy film works best when it convincingly shows itself as a character driven story and its most innocent characters become willing to stand-up to authority figures and to show that love, even if sentimentalized and icky, can overcome many of life’s mishaps.