By Anthony Breznican
Updated March 29, 2011 at 04:42 PM EDT
Credit: Chris Pizzello/AP Images

No summer film has been as cloaked in mystery as J.J. Abrams’ upcoming Super 8, about a group of amateur teen movie-makers in 1979 who accidentally capture footage of a train wreck carrying a large, angry creature from Area 51.

But now Abrams is reluctantly pulling back the curtain. He showcased the key crash scene for theater owners at their annual CinemaCon convention in Las Vegas, along with some of the more intimate scenes featuring the young kids who make up the cast. “The key today really is to show the people who some of our characters are,” Abrams said backstage before Monday night’s Paramount presentation. “Most people don’t even know what Super 8 is. But the whole evolution of the movie was about the characters first.”

For the record, kids, “Super 8” refers not to a hotel chain or to an octet of superheroes, but to the old 8mm home movie cameras that predated VHS. Most everyone who has grown up since then has played around with their parents’ cameras and made goofy amateur films. So why did Abrams choose to set it in 1979, instead of the present day which surely would’ve entailed more ubiquitous cellphone cameras? “It felt a little more autobiographical. It just felt right,” Abrams said, shrugging. “But it is probably more common now than in the late ’70s and early ’80s. “

Some of the footage he previewed at CinemaCon could have come from any nostalgic coming-of-age film, like Adventureland or Stand By Me — laced with bittersweet truths about growing up and the bonds of friendship forged at that age. But this movie also has a rampaging monster terrorizing the town these kids occupy.

Abrams told the gathering of theater owners he originally intended to make two movies: one about friends making home-movies in the ’70s, and another about an alien on the loose, sort of like the plot of E.T. if the extra-terrestrial was the Rancor monster from Return of the Jedi. (Steven Spielberg is a producer on the film, which borrows heavily from the mood of his E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind.)

Credit: Lewis Jacobs/NBC

The monster remains hidden in Abrams mystery box, however. The showcase featured a scene of it attacking a sleepy, nighttime gas station, vanishing a cop and crushing a police cruiser before bursting through the storefront to shred a hapless teenage clerk. The creature is only glimpsed briefly in a dim reflection, though, and the rest of its havoc is seen only peripherally, or partially obscured in long shot, with the storefront carnage covered by the gas station’s revolving sign as the camera rises up into the night.

The kids in the movie were shown in far sharper focus:

Credit: Lewis Jacobs/NBC

The Heart and Soul: Joe, played by Joel Courtney, is the central character, a good-natured 14-year-old who wants to help his friend finish his zombie film, and is at odds with his recently widowed father (Friday Night Light’s Kyle Chandler), who is also a local lawman. “He’s a really sweet kid, but he’s a follower,” Abrams said. He’s also nursing a crush on …

Credit: Lewis Jacobs/NBC

The Tough Girl: Elle Fanning co-stars as Alice, who steals her father’s car to drive the boys to the remote, abandoned train station to shoot a scene for their little movie. “Alice is very important to Joe. She’s the one girl he has admired from afar, but has never spoken to,” Abrams said. “Not only is she going to be in the movie, but she’s going to drive them. They’re 14 years old so the idea of driving anywhere is insane.” In fact, she resents Joe coming along, because she’s afraid he’ll tell his father she was driving underage.

Credit: Lewis Jacobs/NBC

The Auteur: If Joe is a follower, Charles is the kid with the marching orders. Played by Riley Griffiths, he’s a pushy, barrel-chested kid with big dreams and even bigger expectations for how his friends can help them come true. “All that Charles cares about is his movie and that his movie has a better story and better production values,” Abrams said.

Credit: Lewis Jacobs/NBC

The Firebug: Carey (Ryan Lee) likes to set things ablaze and is the go-to guy for special effects and fireworks. When the massive train crash almost kills all of them, he’s the only one who thinks it was cool.

The Leading Man and the Extra Man: Martin (Gabriel Basso) is not the brightest of the bunch, but that’s probably not the first time that could be said about a film’s main character. He is mainly a jaw-dropper, stunned by what is happening around them. He’s joined in this duty by Preston, played by Zach Mills, who is the amateur film’s primary background actor — they’re just to make the scene look busy. He fulfills that role in Super 8 as well.

Since Abrams described the movie as “autobiographical,” which of the characters is closest to him?

“A number of them,” he says. “I feel like I’m a little bit of all of them, a couple here and there less so. But I certainly feel I see the world the way the main character sees the world. Joe, he’s very optimistic, and romantic nature, but his heart’s been ripped out because of the loss of his mother. But I’m also very much like Charles, the kid who makes the movies, who’s sort of this bullying loser who coerces his friends into helping him make films all the time, and is a little bit obnoxious.”

Credit: Lewis Jacobs/NBC

What kind of home movies did Abrams make as a kid?

“All sorts of horror movies and crazy graphic fights and murders, and monsters with make-up effects,” Abrams says. “I was always trying out different things, playing out crazy fantasies of chases and fight scenes, and people dying in horrible ways.”

Were they any good, given the limited resources?

“No,” Abrams says definitively. “No, no, no, no, no. They were not good at all. They were very bad. And then you look at them years later and they’re even worse than you remember.”

The perception is the opposite for Super 8, which is slowly building buzz as one of the must-see movies of summer when it opens June 10. Abrams acknowledged the challenge of marketing a movie that’s not a sequel, not based on a comic book or other existing work, and has no major stars. But like Inception last year, its originality could be enough to push it to blockbuster status.

CinemaCon continues through Thursday evening. Check back for details of the DreamWorks Fright Night remake, adaptation of The Help, and Hugh Jackman’s robot boxing drama Real Steel.

Follow Anthony Breznican on Twitter @Breznican for movie news throughout the week.

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