If I ever write a childhood movie, I’ll call it “Kick the Can” and it’ll be about that idyllic summer when I was 10 and, with my five siblings and neighborhood kids, played the titular game every evening after supper until it got dark and our moms began hollering for us to come home for bedtime.
Not that I have the plot any further developed than that.
Every writer and director has a memory film about childhood lurking somewhere. For Steven Spielberg, it was “E.T.” For Rob Reiner, it was “Stand by Me” (based on a story by Stephen King). And for J.J. Abrams, it’s “Super 8,” which is co-produced by Spielberg and owes more than a nod to both “E.T.” and “Stand.”
Key to these films is a fond nostalgia for childhood and a seemingly more innocent time. But in both of them, something out of the normal intrudes upon the unspoiled days of childhood and the young characters must find resources within themselves to deal with it.
Parents, if they exist in these films, are tangential figures, either warmly benevolent or harried and weighed down by the complexities of adult life.
Both “E.T.” and “Stand” scored with audiences because they were able to convey the wonder of childhood, when everything is still a new adventure, and the closeness of young friendships. Each, too, gave us a glimpse of the men-to-be residing in their boyish heroes.
Writer-director Abrams (“Star Trek”) taps into that sense of youthful wonder and adventure with “Super 8.” His movie follows a group of adolescent friends — four boys and a girl — in a small Ohio town. At the behest of the aspiring youthful filmmaker in their group, they set out to make a zombie short with a Super 8 film camera in 1979. The plan is to submit it as an entry in a competition sponsored by a Cleveland film festival.
While filming a night scene at a local train station, the kids witness a horrific crash involving a freight train. Within minutes, the accident scene is overrun by U.S. Air Force troops, who promptly cordon off the area.
Soon, strange things start happening in town, with car parts, microwaves and people disappearing. And folks on-screen start glimpsing something — we viewers just see it rustling the trees — that’s obviously horrifying.
Yes, “Super 8” is a monster movie. There’s a monster — and the kids and everyone else in town needs to figure out just what kind it is, why it has shown up and what it wants. To say more would spoil the movie’s supposed surprises.
“Super 8” is accomplished commercial filmmaking. Abrams knows where to put a camera, how to move a story along and how to add distinctive touches that make the material, briefly, seem fresh. It’s a movie that holds your attention much of the time while you’re watching but it leaves little impression once you walk out of the theater.
The clearly autobiographical sections about the film — crazy kids making a movie — are the best parts. They have a veracity, authenticity and spark that do much to lift the movie and add humor. (Stay through the credits, because the group’s zombie short plays in its entirety alongside the roll of names.)
The monster stuff is less effective. We’ve been here too many times before in recent decades and the scientific mumbo-jumbo and plot mechanics involving the adults — one of the kids’ dad, a deputy sheriff, tries to get to the bottom of what’s going on while an evil Air Force officer attempts a cover up — have more than a whiff of recycled goods. As for the actual monster, the movie’s slow reveal may just be a little too slow.
But as would-be summer blockbusters go, it’s a better movie than the thoroughly processed and predictable “Thor,” “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides” and “The Hangover Part II.” But it’s no “E.T.” or “Stand by Me.”
Then again, if you’re an impressionable 13 year old and see “Super 8,” well, in 20 or 30 years you may recall it as fondly as most of today’s adults do those earlier movies.
As with everything in life, perspective is all about memory.