A BOY, A girl, maybe a first kiss.
The only ingredients you really need for a nice summer movie. Throw in a monster, and you've got a summer movie that can open on 3,000 screens, but the most basic ingredients are the most effective.
So argues J.J. Abrams in "Super 8," rolled back some three decades to 1979, a pre-digital world when a story of boy meets girl meets alien could be told with appealing simplicity and given the warm glow of real film.
"Super 8" is a love letter to moviemaking in its simplest form, with a simple twist - in small- town Ohio, as a bunch of kids film their own monster movie, a real monster gets loose.
The makeup artist is Joe (Joel Courtney), who's only too happy to sneak out of a home still haunted by the death of his mother, now dominated by an angry and distant father (Kyle Chandler).
Joe also has a significant crush on the movie's leading lady, Alice (Elle Fanning), who is the daughter of town drunk (Ron Eldard), a man whose carelessness may have contributed to his mother's death.
Abrams rolls out this information in an efficient and unexpectedly funny prologue (the movie-within-a-movie jokes are quite good), then stages a corker of a scene as "Super 8" makes the hyperspace jump from family drama to alien adventure.
It starts with the kiddie crew shooting a nighttime scene at a train station, where Alice makes her acting debut. Abrams pays homage to exec producer Steven Spielberg in "Super 8," but what happens in this scene is borrowed from "Mullholland Drive" and that great Naomi Watts audition sequence.
It's a great piece of acting-on-top-of-acting by young Fanning, who was so good in "Somewhere," and here solidifies the Fanning family choke hold (she's Dakota's younger sister) on coltish, adorable teen girls.
Certainly the audition makes an impression on the already lovestruck Joe. Abrams captures this in a great reaction shot, with Joe an activated tuning fork of awakened adolescence.
All hell is about to break loose, so Abrams makes it literal. A mysterious midnight train comes hurtling down the seldom-used tracks, and the resourceful director (Riley "D.W." Griffiths) decides to make use of it, shooting the station scene with a real train for "production value."
There is a spectacular crash, an unidentified beast gets loose, and the kids flee the scene with some of the mysterious cubes that now litter the landscape.
Enjoyable sci-fi hokum ensues - the military arrives and quarantines the small town, the monster (always off camera) starts snatching people, dogs, scrap metal. These turn out to be ingredients for a project that becomes apparent during the grand finale (the movie's only concession to big-time special effects).
Meanwhile the kids go forth with their movie, taking advantage of the ongoing "production value" in the background, getting deeper into the mystery of the creature, putting themselves in increasing danger.
But nothing too dangerous. As befits a Spielberg tribute, dysfunctional families come together, children come to understand their parents' travail, parents are reminded that they love their children.
"Super 8," though, is at heart a romance, and Abrams gets lucky with his leads - they are naturally expressive young actors. There is a touching scene of Joe watching home movies of his mother, when he's visiting Alice. He shuts the projector off but she urges him to continue, and there, in the dark, in front of the flickering screen, they realize they're in love.
Time for that first kiss?
The movie is more chaste than that, though they do end up holding hands.
But that's not the end of the movie.
Stay tuned through the final credits.