Spielberg & Abrams At The Movies

Super 8 is a movie about making and watching movies, and it’s best not to know any more than that.

Moviemakers are an insufferably self-satisfied and self-important group of people. As if it weren’t enough to hold an annual pageant of self-congratulation and broadcast it around the world, they’re constantly making movies about making movies. Sometimes it’s just a backdrop, other times it’s a metaphor or post-modernist deconstruction or something, and sometimes it’s a cry for help. Even when it’s a satire, it’s making the arrogant assumption that we’re all fascinated by what their world is like, and not that we just want them to shut up and entertain us.

Sometimes, though, it’s a completely sincere attempt by a filmmaker to convey exactly what it is he loves about the movies. Super 8 is the best example of that; it feels like J.J. Abrams’s attempt to recreate a childhood as a nerdy kid on the cusp of seeing his first summer blockbuster. Back before the summer blockbuster got completely overwhelmed by marketing and effects, before the core of the blockbuster rotted away and they became soulless commercial entertainment product.

It’s a shameless love letter to the movies of his co-producer, and it’s an unabashed nostalgia trip. And as it turns out, you can go home again.

Part of the old-school feel comes from the secrecy around the movie, an attempt to give teasers and previews a year before the movie’s release but still hark back to a time before blogs and conventions, when people would go see movies knowing little more than what was on the poster. (A blog post on Wired talks more about that, but reveals more about the movie than I would have, so I recommend not reading it until you’ve seen the movie). That paid off brilliantly — I knew very little about the movie going in, and even what I’d thought I knew was confounded by well-edited trailers. It’s not even a case of going in expecting the shocking twist, it’s just a case of letting the movie gradually reveal itself to an audience that’s not constantly second-guessing it.

I’d recommend it highly, though, and I’ve got a few more thoughts about it for those who’ve already seen it.

(Spoilers follow!)

As I was walking out of the movie, I still loved it, but could already feel it starting to evaporate. In the end, it was a pretty straightforward action/coming-of-age movie. The parts that weren’t a direct homage to other movies were simply straight from the book of movie cliches. But what did it all mean? “Sometimes bad things happen, but you’ve got to keep going?” Yeah, that’s great, kid, but I was hoping for a little more than that.

But the more I think about it, the more I realize that that’s completely missing the point of Super 8. It’s absurd to expect a novel commentary on the human condition from a movie — even a good one — and yet that’s exactly what we’ve been programmed to expect. That’s life in the post-Titanic movie world. It’s become part of the formula: set-up, emotional crisis, string of action scenes, big action climax, then the scene that explains what it all means. Sure, I thought it was moving when the kid finally let go of the locket, but I still left wondering: is that it?

Which doesn’t just ignore the value of a well-told story for its own sake (and Super 8 is an extremely well-told story), but it says that some shallow emotional pay-off is a valid substitute for genuine insight. And even worse, it kept me from realizing the greatest achievement of Super 8: for two solid hours, I felt exactly like I did when I was a nerdy pre-teen, seeing a big summer movie for the first time.

I’ve read complaints that it’s too much of a pastiche of Spielberg movies, which I think is just a holdover from decades of mostly-undeserved Steven Spielberg backlash. It’s a lot easier to just write off Spielberg as a maker of schmaltzy forgettable summer blockbusters (with periodic forays into Oscar bait), than it is to acknowledge what an amazing storyteller he is. And Super 8 feels much like an 80s Spielberg movie on anti-depressants: it doesn’t ever quite hit the highs of the T. Rex scene in Jurassic Park, but neither does it have any moments of people staring wide-eyed and open-mouthed at something wondrous before breaking into awkward laughter.

There is plenty of wide-eyed staring in Super 8, of course, but it’s usually punctuated by a scream or a “fuck.” There are great action moments, the train crash in particular, but they feel more ingrained in the flow of the story than as self-contained set pieces. Best of all, none of the cheap scares felt cheap, and they all worked for me.

All the lens flare is J.J. Abrams’s most obvious contribution, and I’ve got to admit that it does go past “Close Encounters of the Third Kind homage” into “just plain annoying.” But you can kind of give it a pass as an implicit reminder that this is a movie. I also honestly believe that he’s entitled to an affectation, and lens flare is easier to point to than casting Greg Grunberg or spending a lot of time on world-building and viral marketing campaigns. Without some kind of visual flourish or gimmick, he’d fade into the background, because he’s simply one hell of a great storyteller. Alias, Star Trek, Mission Impossible 3, Cloverfield and the Lost pilot all succeeded or failed to varying degrees, but the one thing they all have in common is that while they’re running, you’re completely engrossed in the story.

Ultimately, Super 8 was so good at triggering my nostalgia receptors that it planted a false memory in my brain: I’ve never actually liked Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but from now on I’m going to remember it fondly.

One last good thing about Super 8: I like finding out that there’s another talented Fanning sister. Conyers, GA represent!

2 thoughts on “Spielberg & Abrams At The Movies”

  1. I loved this for the first third or so, but wasn’t a big fan of the creature design. Basically, the more the kids found out, the less involved I felt.

    I did like the idea of having an E.T.-style emotional connection between kid and alien when it’s an alien that eats people, though. There’s a lot of unused comedy potential there.

    If I had seen this when I was eleven or twelve, it would have been my favorite movie ever. And nice description — the parts of this movie that worked realy did bring back the feeling of seeing a big summer movie as a kid.

  2. Dave and I saw Super 8 tonight. I purposely set my expectations low and sure enough the movie exceeded them. It was an enjoyable ride!

    Though a good portion of the attraction for me was the acting. The kids were really good. And I think I’ll watch anything with Kyle Chandler in it. I wish someone would make a good period piece or cold war drama with him and Chris Cooper in it. ๐Ÿ™‚

    If you haven’t heard the J. J. Abrams interview on Fresh Air, you should give it a listen. It’s both interesting and entertaining: http://www.npr.org/2011/06/13/137108820/j-j-abrams-the-super-career-of-a-movie-crazed-kid

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