As easy as it is sometimes to tell when an actor or director is just going through the motions to get a paycheck, it’s also easy to tell when they have a vested interest in the material. J.J. Abrams and Steven Spielberg, even before joining forces on Super 8, were well-known for the nostalgia of their younger days; while their classmates busied themselves collecting baseball cards, Abrams and Spielberg were making movies on their family’s home video camera.

Their shared passion for those early days propels Super 8 into the rare air occupied by movies that flat-out succeed on every level.

It would be easy to call Super 8 a mash-up of Stand By Me, The Goonies, E.T., and Close Encounters (it was obviously inspired by all those and many others), but it’s much more—a completely compelling movie in its own right. It’s jam-packed with high tension while also giving ample time to quieter, more human moments.

In the summer of 1979, Lillian, Ohio, middle-schooler Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) is making a fun little 8mm zombie flick with his friends. One night they steal away to the local train depot for what was to be just another scene, but they end up witnessing what’s easily the most utterly devastating train derailment ever put on film. In short order, we learn that the accident was no accident, that the train is the property of the U.S. Air Force, and that something very dangerous has escaped from the wreckage.

While the kids are largely content to just stare in wide-eyed wonder at the wreckage and realize its “production value” as a new, fortuitous backdrop for their zombie flick, the adults in Lillian aren’t so lucky. Unexplained power outages, stolen car engines, and the disappearance of all the town’s dogs are beginning to overwhelm Joe’s dad (Kyle Chandler), Lillian’s de facto sheriff. The blanket reassurance he receives from a must-be-hiding-something Air Force officer (Noah Emmerich) is no consolation, especially when Army convoys begin rolling through town.

While many filmmakers may have just been content to stop there and let Super 8 rest as a simple sci-fi monster movie, Abrams wisely (and efficiently) takes things several steps further. Subplots abound, including Joe grappling with his mom’s recent death, his infatuation with fellow student and zombie flick cast-mate Alice (Elle Fanning), and the tension between his and her fathers.

Even little moments that could have ended up on the cutting room floor have their place. At one point early on we watch as Joe dabs a little movie makeup onto Alice’s face. It may seem like a quiet, seemingly throwaway moment, but it serves a real purpose, giving a clear sense of just how gaga Joe is for this girl. Moments like that give Super 8 a depth that’s unexpected but very welcome.

That’s not to say there isn’t plenty of edge-of-your-seat action, too. The suspense created by not revealing the monster until the third act, combined with the towns’ rapid descent into hell by way of a handbasket, provides first-rate excitement. The pace may involve plenty of stops and starts, but there’s never a dull moment.

The cast is among the best ensembles to hit the screen in a long time. Courtney and Fanning steer the movie with their innocent and often heartfelt performances, and veterans Chandler and Ron Eldard (as Alice’s father Louis) turn in top-notch work, too.

Abrams obviously had a heap of fun putting Super 8 together. Even his trademark incessant lens flare (which was so over-the-top in 2009’s Star Trek) has been brought under control, most of the time anyway. And having Spielberg (the king of the nostalgic, sci-fi, kid-friendly monster movie) along for the ride only ups the fun quotient.

Back in 1983, some friends and I grabbed my dad’s super 8 camera and filmed a spoof of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”. The finished film has long since disappeared, but the memories and the experience haven’t. While I obviously won’t pretend to share Abrams and Spielberg’s history or prowess, I can certainly appreciate the wide-eyed fascination that comes with creating something and recording it on film. It’s because they never lost that feeling either that Super 8 has emerged as the first truly must-see movie of the year.

Note: Don’t leave when the credits roll. The kids’ finished zombie flick is presented in its entirety.

5/5 stars