2011 has been dubbed as the “Year of the Sequel” in a number of film circles. With good reason obviously as there are more than two-dozen seconds, thirds, fourths and what not in production scheduled for release this year. Having noted that, how refreshing it is that the best film of the year so far is none of the above? Super 8 is not a sequel, though some would argue it also isn’t completely original given the obvious Spielberg influence at work. It isn’t in 3D which, if you ask a vast majority of cineastes, is proving to be the bane of the theater experience; and given the quality of the special effects on offer, even low-quality 3D would’ve dramatically increased the profits. And, like the best of films, it makes you leave the cinema hall knowing that you’ve witnessed something truly special that you’ll remember for a long time to come.

Super 8 is a science-fiction film, but this label is not entirely true. The trailer focused on the sci-fi aspects with the obvious intention of attracting more viewers than it would otherwise. However, stripped to its core, Super 8 is a character-driven drama focusing on a bunch of teenagers and their flirtations with danger while shooting a low-budget movie. Though the film borrows certain aspects from Speilberg’s E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, neither does it try to find the meaning of what is out there like the latter nor does it touch our inner child like the former. The science-fiction aspect is always in the background and only rears its head during the final sequences of the movie. Take away the sci-fi and add any other element you want, Super 8 will remain unchanged because of how good its drama is. I am not complaining though because, with Abrams and Spielberg working together, sci-fi doesn’t get better than this.

The aforementioned group of teenagers is comprised of the following: Joe (Joel Courtney) who is trying to work things out with his father Jackson Lamb (Kyle Chandler) following the recent loss of his mother; Charles Kaznyck (Riley Griffiths) who is Joe’s best friend and the director of their project; Alice (Elle Fanning) who is trying to fix her own relationship with her alcoholic dad Louis Dainard (Ron Eldard); Cary (Ryan Lee) who is the cinematographer with an affinity for blowing things up; Preston (Zach Mills) and Martin (Gabriel Basso) who are the lighting guy and hero of the film respectively.

On one of their late night shoots at the local train station, they decide to capture their scene with the approaching train as background which Charles hopes will add some much needed production value to their film. Their plan goes awry when the train collides with an incoming pick-up truck and derails. They barely make it out of the wreckage alive as the police show up. Soon after the accident, weird happenings are reported throughout the town. The sheriff, along with a few other townsfolk, is reported missing which leaves Joe’s dad in-charge, putting even more stress on the relationship with his son. It is not long before the military, led by Colonel Nelec (Noah Emmerich), show up to clear up the mess, while Joe and Charles witness a creature amidst the footage retrieved from the crash site which could just explain why their silent town is suddenly a government hotspot.

J.J. Abrams clearly knows his goal and what he needs to do to get there. The initial portions firmly fixate on the relationships between the characters. Joe’s dad doesn’t want him anywhere near Alice or her father for reasons that are not revealed until much later. Charles and Joe both have their eyes on Alice while she shows interest only for the latter much to the annoyance of the former. Joe’s intimate relationship with his mother is also given highlight through the locket he carries with him and she is always a looming presence.

Once the big reveal occurs, the film moves into sci-fi action mode. This is when we get the payoff we’ve been craving. By this time, we’re fully invested in the characters because of the meticulous setup. Although there is a bucketload of high quality special effects to be found as the ending nears, they never upstage the human element. The climax reel is accompanied by a masterful, yet perfectly subtle, score by Michael Giacchino, and we cannot help but feel elated as the credits roll by.

The acting is uniformly excellent from the entire cast, old or young. Joel Courtney is the film’s biggest surprise package. Usually youngsters making their silver screen debut have at least a small screen appearance before them. Looking at Courtney’s resume doesn’t reveal this to be the case. This makes his performance all the more worthy of praise given that he carries the film admirably from start to finish. Elle Fanning most certainly doesn’t look and act like the 13-year old that she is. There is a scene in the film where the teens are awestruck by her acting display. That just about perfectly sums up my reaction to her performance. The rest of the youngsters all do their jobs capably while the seniors led by Noah Emmerich and Kyle Chandler are professional enough to not be left wanting.

Super 8 is the best movie of the summer so far and by far the best film of the first half of the year. Given the pedigree of the names associated with the production, most people would’ve hoped for a pretty good film, but Super 8 surpasses all reasonable expectations one could’ve had. With special effects that serve the characters and story, a director who knows what he’s doing and a producer who has made his name for the aforementioned two aspects, Super 8 is the must-watch film of 2011.