Elle Fanning, Riley Griffiths, and Joel Courtney in J.J. Abrams's "Super 8"
I remember being a child in the 1980s when so many commercial films could be categorized as “Spielberg movies.” I caught most of them in the theater or on HBO within a couple of years: Gremlins, The Goonies, Young Sherlock Holmes, Explorers, Back to the Future. These were the movies that the Maestro didn’t direct personally, but that were directed by protégés or imitators, and usually had his name somewhere in the credits in a producing capacity. My first conception of cinematic style may have originated with these movies. Anybody tapped into popular culture in those days knew what “Spielbergian” meant – it meant there would probably be youthful protagonists, and a suburban setting, and soaring music composed if not by John Williams then by the best available facsimile thereof, and copious dolly-in reaction shots of actors staring awestruck at Something Wonderful just offscreen. As an attitude, a way of making and presenting and packaging movies, Spielbergism became a mainstream behemoth and consequently there followed a strong peer pressure among knowing, sarcastic types to disparage it. Yet even as Spielbergism in the abstract became an easy target for derision – an encapsulation of all that was obvious, pandering, and simplistic in cinema and indeed in American popular culture (perhaps “Capraesque” had a similar connotation 40 years earlier?), the consistent craftsmanship and boyish enthusiasm of many of these films argued eloquently in their own favor. And it’s evident that one of these films’ key themes – the expression of a yearning for risky, mystical, grand and uncontrollable experiences that would break up the monotony of a stilted Levittown suburban existence – tapped into a strong current of the middle-class American subconscious.
J.J. Abrams’s Super 8 aims to resurrect that particular vibe, and for the most part does so with affection, attention to detail, and competence. The tale of an adolescent Ohio boy whose town becomes terrorized by an extraterrestrial (and its opaque, incommunicative military minders) in the aftermath of a train crash, Super 8 adds little new to the formula except the cranked-up intensity of modern visual effects and editing, and a brisk, shorthand attitude toward the sci-fi backstory, implying a savvy audience by now deeply familiar with Roswell Crash tropes.
The movie’s first and last thirds are the most overtly Spielbergian – the first, in its emphasis on the daily drudgery and small wonders of adolescent suburban life, and in its insistence on Not Showing the Alien just as Spielberg Didn’t Show the Shark in Jaws; the last, in its desperate, eager-to-please insistence on an operatic, effects-laden conclusion that is going to beat the awe out of us whether we like it or not. (That is a mode of Spielberg’s that has always rather galled me, though I appreciate the striking originality of the sound-and-light-show finale to Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which remains the ur-text and prototype for these sorts of movies). Those early scenes, though, work quite well: the hero, Joe (Joel Courtney), recently bereaved by the loss of his mother, loses himself in a zombie-movie project masterminded by best-friend Charlie (Riley Griffiths), and develops an overpowering crush on the lead actress, Alice (Elle Fanning). The agony and ecstasy of first love, the comfort of a tribe of buddies who express every emotion through banter, the initial clumsy groping toward what could become a professional calling: all of these are elegantly evoked. Charlie, in particular, emerges as a persuasive portrait of the Born Director: he’s loud and bossy, but everyone does what he says because he’s so in control, so sure of what he wants to do. He’s a portrait of leadership through sheer force of will, a reminder that artistry is only a fraction of what it takes to be a filmmaker. Had I been able to see this movie when I was a film student, I might have learned a lesson or two from that characterization.
Where the film strains is in its forced juxtaposition of Spielbergian uplift and straightforward creature-feature thrills. For most of Act II, Abrams depicts the extraterrestrial as an unthinking monster preying on local townsfolk for obscure reasons, which makes it problematic when we’re subjected to a third-act sympathy grab. Suddenly we’re supposed to care about the alien, but that emotional attachment hasn’t been earned, either by a meaningful interpersonal relationship (as in E.T.) or by any sense of a morally superior cosmic agenda with significant repercussions for humankind (as in Close Encounters, by way of The Day The Earth Stood Still). Consequently, for all its lavish visual effects, the finale rings hollow. As Joe and all the townsfolk gaze wonderingly up at yet another Gigantic Space Chandelier, it’s not at all clear what any of this is supposed to mean. But then the credits roll, and with them a complimentary screening of Charlie’s film-within-a-film, whose cheerful absurdity reminds us that we probably shouldn’t be taking any of this very seriously. Hey, it’s summer, after all.