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June 24, 2017

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Super 8 (超級8)

"Super 8" is the rarest of things this time of year: a summer blockbuster that's completely earnest and irony-free, not filled with cheeky pop-culture references or cheesy product placement. The effects, while spectacular, also happen to be germane to the plot, and they have an intimate, tactile quality, rather than seeming too glossy or removed from reality. (And they're NOT in 3D. Yes, it is indeed possible.)

So all you're left with is ... story. And strong performances. And well-developed characters. And a believable emotional arc. And genuine thrills.

And that's apropos, given that it's a love letter to the man who skillfully wove together all those elements in inventing the modern blockbuster.

J.J. Abrams has crafted a loving, meticulously detailed homage to Steven Spielberg, who's one of the film's producers — specifically, the director's work from the late 1970s and early 1980s — but it never feels like a rip-off, and it certainly never lapses into parody. As writer and director, Abrams effectively conveys a mood — a mixture of innocence, fear and ultimately hope — that Spielberg managed to create again and again. He also captures a familiar sense of childhood loneliness — a need to escape and belong — and the adventures that can spring from that yearning.

The kids at the center of this sci-fi thriller, many of whom had never appeared in a feature film before, are total naturals and bounce off each other with effortless, goofy humor. And lookie here: The boy who's the film's freshly scrubbed and hugely likable star, Joel Courtney, bears more than a slight resemblance to an "E.T."-era Henry Thomas.

Yes, "Super 8" is Spielbergian not just in tone but in technique, as well. Several of the director's preferred camera angles and movements are on display, especially from his early days: crane shots, the way he pushes in from underneath on an actor's face, the way he makes lights in the night sky look simultaneously mystical and menacing. (Cinematographer Larry Fong's work repeatedly calls to mind "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" (第三類接觸) — in a good way.)

Some sort of strange encounter is indeed happening in the small, blue-collar town of Lillian, Ohio, in the summer of 1979. First comes the train crash, a marvel of screeching wheels and fiery, flying freight cars that a group of aspiring filmmakers just happens to witness while shooting a low-budget zombie flick on — you guessed it — Super 8 film. Then the neighborhood dogs go missing.

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