Super 8: directed and written by J. J. Abrams
For a pseudo film critic, I pay little attention to the hubbub of films before their release, unless they’re particularly ubiquitous or have a star that I’m obsessed with. It’s probably that same general ignorance, or maybe it was the geographical disadvantage, that made me miss the apparent voluminous the wave of anticipation surrounding the release of J. J. Abrams Super 8. Thus, I was neither preoccupied with its promise of a return to the nostalgia of Spielberg’s 80s films or an undiluted action spectacle suitable for children without being pandering. The most I could tell was a rare summer blockbuster that was not an adaptation, sequel nor remake and with the vociferous cries for “true” originality in the cinema, I assumed that audiences would be generally enthralled. I’ve said before that there’s little inherently wrong with either adaptations or remake and in a way I feel Abrams validates my point with Super 8. It exists, ostensibly, as a work from the mind of Abrams but as “original” a screenplay as it is the ultimate point of Super 8 seems as superficial and insincere as any number of remakes, adaptations and sequels.
The picture opens at a funeral which you immediately know is meant to give the film an emotional backdrop. The fact that Joe’s mother has died gives him that special touch of maturity that allows him the opportunity to be wiser, even if only tangentially, than his counterparts and worthy of protagonist importance. A title card carries us four months later and Joe (Joel Courtney) it’s a safe distance away from the aforementioned funeral so that Joe is not mired in grief, but still thinks about it enough for it to be a part of his character arc. Joe’s best friend, Charles (both tyrannical and hilarious), is making a short film about zombies which requires that the group move to the train tracks to get a chance to retain some “production value”. It’s here that they witness a bizarre accident which comprises a gargantuan train wreck seemingly caused by a professor of theirs car crashing. The man, miraculously alive, warns them that if they tell anyone what they saw they’ll die. They haven’t actually seen anything, but the train wreck precipitates the appearance of terrible monster ready to wreak havoc on the town. And so it begins.
I try to think long and hard before I call a film’s writing out for being poor just because I know I’m especially wont to criticise even the smallest of screenplay issues. Super 8, though, is garishly conspicuous because the plot of land on which Abrams decides to build his house of homage is tenuous. He seems only to know that he’s trying to make a reverential piece, but the film is uncertain if its aim is to be a mellifluous coming-of-age drama, a childhood buddy film or an alien invasion romp. Not that it can’t be all three, but when neither avenue is clearly constructed, there’s little chance and Abrams ends up using scenes as perfunctory plot-points and not as authentic moments of character development.
Not that the characters themselves are completely soulless, though. The film is buoyed by a dependable sextet of child actors. I was tweeting earlier in the week that I was most impressed with Gabriel Basso (excellent opposite Laura Linney and Oliver Platt on The Big C) who plays the snivelling male lead, but they’re all quite good. Elle Fanning is both beautiful and terrible as the lone female of the bunch, but as the story develops you get the sense that it’s not that the children’s portion of the story is well-made the child actors are just really game. And, there’s the sense that as clichéd as some of the lines are Abrams would have been better off focusing the crux of the film on them. Instead, the film dawdles around unsure of what it ultimately wants to be.
Abrams is looking for that thing called heart that Spielberg’s films are always notable for. I’m not an avid fan of Spielberg, but his biggest fan to his most cynical detractor agree that his films are notable for their tendency (sometimes unnecessarily) to tug at its audiences heartstrings, and in constructing an homage to his hero Super 8 contains all the physical aspects of his predecessor but is egregiously low on the emotional. I’d probably be a bit more forgiving of Abrams, though, if it weren’t for the film’s third act. It’s as if, halfway through production he realises how low on emotion the film is and decides to inject it with the same resulting in just what the film seemed intent on avoiding – cheap sentiment. Alice’s father must be linked to Joe’s mother’s death and the two must share a heartfelt conversation, parents must reunite with their children to swelling music and to ensure that children don’t leave the film scared the tyrannical monster wreaking all that havoc demands only a locket to realise that he’s not really a monster, but an out of place alien who misses. It’s there that the film annoys me most. Abrams wants to keep the suspense as he keeps the monster shrouded in darkness, but he also wants us to feel an intense emotional connection to it. He doesn’t realise that he can’t have it both ways and it makes for a flaccid conclusion.
The poster of Super 8 made me smile because it reminded of a post that Univarn had done ages ago (see here). The name of Spielberg (the producer) is as distinguishable as that of Abrams. I don’t need to go into a psychology tutorial to point out what the giant print of his name supplies. It seems as if the advertising for Super 8 intends on ensuring that two groups flock to the cinemas. The youth population, yearning for a well-made film catered to them and the adult population who grew up on Spielberg intent on a nostalgic experience. The thing about nostalgia is that it’s a bit like Abrams own predilection for lens’ flare. Beneath his stylistic machinations it all looks appealing but in the harsh light of day it’s exasperatingly hollow. I don’t mean to rob Abrams’ yearn for nostalgia its worth. I’m sure if I made a film paying homage to Martin Scorsese it would hardly be worthy of public consumption. Therein lays the point. As a pandering homage to his idol Super 8 is vaguely tolerable, but that doesn’t mean that it’s worth our money. As beautiful as it looks. Abrams is looking for a repeat of the Speilberg blockbuster of the eighties. He doesn’t find it.