From left, Gabriel Basso, Ryan Lee, Joel Courtney and Riley Griffiths in… (Francois Duhamel, Paramount…)
The poster for the new movie "Super 8" is dominated not by an image but by two equally prominent names: writer-director J.J. Abrams and producer Steven Spielberg. Hybrids may be all the rage for cars, but this melding of two cinematic sensibilities, though effective at moments, is finally not as exciting or involving as it we'd like it to be.
The story of what happens when half a dozen middle-school kids set out to make a student film in 1979 Ohio and end up enmeshed in something much bigger and scarier, "Super 8" does not lack for potent elements. Its two lead teens have a fine on-screen chemistry, and all the film's big action sequences are faultlessly executed.
But "Super 8's" elements do not jell into a satisfying whole. Though the directors have been personally close for decades — they first connected when Spielberg hired the then-15-year-old Abrams to restore his own 8mm films — their styles do not necessarily mesh. It's a dissonance that's prefigured when the logos of their production companies — Abrams' cranky Bad Robot and Spielberg's lyrical Amblin — spiritually clash on-screen.
Old-fashioned and genteelly entertaining, even wholesome, "Super 8" plays more like a family film than a kinetic work by Abrams, best known on the big screen for such high energy items as "Mission: Impossible III" and the latest "Star Trek." A longtime admirer of Spielberg, Abrams has made something more in that director's style than his own, an action that has diminished his own effectiveness without replicating what makes the best of Spielberg's films so successful.
You only have to compare "Super 8" (unfairly perhaps, but inevitably) to the Spielberg film it most resembles, the impeccably entertaining "E.T.," to see the ways the earlier movie felt fresh and inventive while the new one has the aura of stuff we've already seen.
Very much like Rob Reiner's "Stand by Me," "Super 8" lives and dies by having those six 14-year-old kids as a group protagonist. Like teenagers everywhere, they provide both frustration and pleasure.
The frustration, unfortunately, comes first, as we meet the boys as an undifferentiated group, gathered together at a wake for the mother of one of their number, Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney), who has died in a steel mill accident in the blue collar town of Lillian, Ohio.
The puerile way these boys interact with each other is standard issue teen behavior, more calculated than involving. Only the fact that they're the core of a gang of kids we eventually see gathering at midnight to shoot a Super 8 short at the local train station gives them any interest at all.
That film's director, Joe's best friend, Charles (an effective Riley Griffiths), intends his zombie thriller for the rarefied precincts of the Cleveland International Super 8 Film Festival. To up the film's emotional quotient, Charles asks attractive blond classmate Alice (Elle Fanning) to be in the movie, not realizing that she is the girl of young Joe's dreams.
If the film has an unexpected strength, it is the performances of both Fanning and Courtney as Alice and Joe, kids who manage to be sweet and natural both together and apart. While Fanning is a known quantity after films such as Sofia Coppola's "Somewhere," Courtney does exceptional work for someone who has never acted professionally before.
Most of "Super 8," however, has other things on its mind, starting with a truly spectacular train crash that happens right in front of that Super 8 camera because of director Charles' never-ending quest for "production value" for his midnight short.
Something unseen escapes from that train, and before you know it, all kinds of strange and mysterious happenings traumatize the town. Not the least of these is the arrival of a contingent of all-business Air Force troops led by the surly Col. Nelec (Noah Emmerich), whose brusque behavior irritates the town's deputy sheriff, Jackson Lamb ("Friday Night Lights'" Kyle Chandler), who also happens to be Joe's father.
All of this is very professionally done, though nothing if not overly familiar. It must have been satisfying for both individuals to relive their youthful 8mm moviemaking days, and to create the kind of story they would have loved to have told back in the day, but none of that necessarily creates value for an audience.
The problem with "Super 8" is not how much there is to complain about but how little there is to be excited about. Given the abilities of those accomplished names on the poster, that has got to be a disappointment.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi action and violence, language and some drug use
Running time: 1 hour, 52 minutes
Playing: In general release