All About Steve
Is it weird that the overwhelming feeling I’m left with after Super 8 is one of a nostalgic melancholy? The reason I went to film school, back when I thought I wanted to make films, is because I fancied myself the next Steven Spielberg: it was his movies that made me fall in love with movies in the first place, and the movies that I thought I wanted to make were movies like his. Spielberg’s movies were the movies I thought about when I thought about movies; his movies were The Movies. And now, with Super 8, it’s like J.J. Abrams fulfilled my own childhood dream, which leaves me with a sense almost of looking at an alternate version of my own life: here’s what I might have done if I’d taken a different path: made a science fiction adventure action movie set in Middle America, full of hope and optimism and scary monsters and Things of Wonder we could all gape in awe at.
But then, too, that was a childhood dream. It’s not something I want anymore. Not that making movies is a childish thing: that’s not what I mean at all. But making this particular movie in this particular way seems a teeny weensy bit like a childish thing for someone — like me; like Abrams — who grew up loving Spielberg. I mean, surely half of the 40something filmmakers working today were inspired to their work by the films of Spielberg they saw as children. There’s nothing wrong with that. Nothing at all. Yet I can’t shake the nagging feeling that those filmmakers should be breaking new ground the way that Spielberg did in the 1970s. He was making films the likes of which none of us had ever seen before, and he was blowing our minds as he did so. Will J.J. Abrams make a film like that for us, and for the kids discovering movies today? His last film was a reboot of a classic and well-loved franchise, and there’s no doubt his Star Trek was great. Super 8 is a fun bit of movie-movie entertainment, there is no doubt. But does he have it in him to be the next Spielberg in a more meaningful way? I will be waiting to see if he can bring to the scene something truly new, and not something that lovingly apes something old…
So: Super 8. It’s a gorgeous pastiche of Spielberg, affectionate without being slavishly imitative… except in perhaps a few ways that are surely Abrams being cheeky and acknowledging just how much he owes to Spielberg. Has any movie since Close Encounters of the Third Kind been so full of mysterious and beautiful lens flare, lighting up nighttime skies here in ways that are by definition not appreciable to the characters in the story, but only to us sitting in the dark watching them in a movie? Spielberg used lens flare to make his skies look more ominous and alien than they might have otherwise. Abrams uses it to remind us that we are watching a movie. And kudos to Abrams: the technique never seems overused, even as often as he does deploy it.
The kids whose story this is — Abrams’ Goonies — are themselves consumed with movies: Bossy, imaginative Charles (Riley Griffiths) is making a zombie movie for a local film festival; his pal Joe (Joel Courtney) is doing the makeup; crushable Alice (Elle Fanning: The Nutcracker in 3D, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) stuns them with her acting talent; the gang is filled out by the pyromaniac explosives “expert” and others. No one says anything so on the nose, but we know they have themselves thrilled to Spielberg’s flicks: Charles is delighted to borrow some “production value” during their sneaky nighttime shoot from a passing train. But they get more production value than they could have imagined as they witness a pickup truck deliberately crash into the train, igniting a spectacular derailment, and launching them into a crazy, dangerous adventure.
There is something insanely and sweetly old-fashioned in everything here, from the “production value” director Abrams milks out of the train crash — truly, it’s one of the most spectacular things I’ve seen on screen in ages, partly because it feels so organic and so realistic — to how screenwriter Abrams only very slowly lets unfurl his mystery. There is a monster, oh yes, escaped from that crashed train — which turns out to have been operated by the Air Force — and Abrams teases us with it for a very long time indeed, never giving us more than a tantalizing glimpse at it, never giving us more than strange and seemingly contradictory hints at what it might be up to. The military descends, of course, on this small Ohio town, led by Noah Emmerich’s (Pride and Glory, Little Children) hardass officer, and there begins to bubble up a sense of Super 8 as a response to Spielberg’s E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, echoing Eliot’s fears of what might happen if the military got their hands on his gentle alien friend.
Small-town America as a place less bucolic than it’s supposed to be? Check. Adventure as a boys’ club, with the presence of one token girl just barely tolerated? Check. Nods to lost 70s culture (three days to develop film; Walkmen)? Check. More to Super 8 than paying homage to Steven Spielberg? Hmm… Honoring an artist who has inspired you is not an unworthy thing. But in this case, it does make Super 8 less than its own man, and little more just a reflection of another one.