by Tony Dayoub
Super 8 feels like the type of fun, science fiction fluff that once typified the summer blockbuster. So why is it that I'm so put off by it? If for nothing else, J.J. Abrams's movie stands out among the countless sequels and remakes that currently populate American multiplexes by being an "original" story. A throwback to Steven Spielberg's late 70s/early 80s UFO thrillers, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, for much of Super 8's, admittedly tense, running time I admired Abrams's ability to recreate much of the excitement generated by those landmark films of my youth. But shortly after the final credits rolled, my enthusiasm dissipated as I started to realize how calculated, how thoroughly engineered, Super 8 really is to tickle the nostalgic area of my brain.
Even Super 8's premise is inspired by Spielberg; it follows a group of precocious kids in 1979, rushing to complete a short zombie movie in time to submit it to a film festival. (Spielberg started shooting his own movies on a super 8 at a very young age.) Sad Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney), the film's makeup man, lost his mom in a steel mill accident a few months back and is now being raised by his dad, Jack (Kyle Chandler), a sheriff's deputy. Joe starts to cheer up after Charles (Riley Griffiths), the film's director, recruits Joe's crush, Alice (Elle Fanning), to star in the movie. But Deputy Lamb would rather Joe not waste his summer shooting horror movies, and he definitely doesn't want Joe getting mixed up with Alice, the daughter of Louis, (Ron Eldard), another steel mill worker the deputy has had some run-ins with (most notably at the funeral for Joe's mom). One night, as the kids sneak off to shoot a scene at a train depot, they witness a pickup truck deliberately drive onto the railroad tracks and toward an oncoming train, which derails in a spectacular explosion, the scale and execution of which is reminiscent of the plane crash that incited the events of Lost (a TV series whose pilot was also directed by Abrams). Air Force Colonel Nelec (Noah Emmerich) soon quarantines the area searching for something which escaped from the wreckage, something big, unaware that the kids' super 8 camera captured the crash and the escape on film.
As in many of Spielberg's films, the behavior of Super 8's central characters, Joe and Alice, is greatly informed by the absence of a parent. The kids deal with the tumultuous relationship each has with their respective single father, both disconnected from them in separate ways: Joe's dad is a workaholic; Alice's is an alcoholic. Just like these daddy issues were fodder for some of the best character interaction in Abrams' Lost, they serve as the basis for some of the most touching scenes in Super 8. Newcomer Courtney is excellent as Joe, the pint-sized hero struggling with the recent loss of his mom and his burgeoning romantic feelings for the pretty Alice. He's ably supported by Fanning and the veteran supporting cast, Chandler, Eldard, and Emmerich (as well as Glynn Turman in a pivotal extended cameo). All are familiar character actors who generally don't get as many opportunities to impress viewers as they do here. Abrams seems to be aware that, like in his mentor Spielberg's films, when Super 8 is focused on the human interest story behind the sci-fi action, the film can transcend the superficiality of your average thriller.
An overreliance on archetypal Spielberg "moments," though, is what ultimately makes Super 8 feel like one, giant, disingenuous wink at the audience. It's bad enough that Abrams has to constantly remind us we're back in the late 70s with his carefully selected pop songs or the expository dialogue, like the exchange where the town sheriff asks a convenience store clerk what kind of device he's fiddling around with, and it turns out to be a Walkman. It isn't enough that Abrams panders to the mid-to-late thirties film geek bloggers (myself included) which are reviewing this film by highlighting cultural identifiers from their youth, like the tiny, square, glass bottles of Testors model paints or the ubiquitous Dick Smith's Do-It-Yourself Monster Make-up Handbook. No, Abrams has to lift iconic moments one identifies with Spielberg's films in order to create a comfortable familiarity in the older viewer and construct Super 8 on a pre-tested, tried-and-true foundation for the younger one. Allow me to count some examples. Town meeting from Jaws...check! Excessive lens flare from Close Encounters... check! Kids riding bikes with backpacks on, a la E.T.... check! There are even more examples, like a hardhat-wearing Water & Power worker (who would have made a great cameo for Richard Dreyfuss) stuck on a deserted road as lights fluctuate on and off like in Close Encounters.
I'm all for brilliant directors paying homage to their antecedents. I'm a Brian De Palma fan, for Pete's sake. But with Spielberg producing Super 8 and his loyal protégé, Abrams, shaping a movie not just out of random parts from his mentor's films but aspects from Spielberg's own formative filmmaking experiences, Super 8 feels like a big, commercial, circle-jerk I'm being enlisted to promote. Thanks, but I'll pass!
Super 8 opens Friday, June 10th, in theaters nationwide.