by Rob Gonsalves
"Super 8" left me feeling vaguely depressed, because its very existence seems to prove you can’t go home again, and maybe its subtext says the same thing.Set in 1979, the movie follows a group of barely teenage boys, and one teenage girl, as they make their own zombie flick and end up catching footage of a train derailment. Something is inside the train, and the kids’ Super 8 camera catches that, too. Much has been made of the observation that the writer-director, J.J. Abrams, has photographed, edited, and scored Super 8 to look, feel, and sound very much like an early-’80s Steven Spielberg film. Spielberg himself is one of the producers, so one assumes he approves; besides, this particular style — the dolly moves, the shots of people staring skyward in awe — belongs to a filmmaker Spielberg himself hasn’t been in nearly two decades. Spielberg isn’t making ‘em like this anymore, so someone else might as well, right?
"Plays Spielberg notes, misses the music."
Spielberg’s near-patented sense-of-wonder film language, though, was always organic to the stories he was telling; he never struck me as a show-off but as someone who thought visually. Abrams’ attempt to ape Spielberg here does two useful things. First, it proves that it isn’t that easy to do; you need Spielberg’s conviction to seal the deal. Second, it points up that classical film storytelling may be a lost art in mainstream summer entertainment; Abrams tries hard, but he keeps panning and tilting in shots that in no way call for embellishment. Spielberg, in his prime, was no more afraid of boring you than is a kid re-enacting a story with his action figures. He was having fun, and he figured you would, too. (And for the most part, we did.) Abrams is of the new breed, terrified of losing us. In Jaws, Spielberg filmed the famous Indianapolis monologue in simple one-shot and two-shot. He trusted the story to rivet us. Abrams would probably have the camera chase itself in a 360 around the table as Robert Shaw spoke to the other men.
The kiddie-filmmaker stuff in Super 8 feels like the stuff Abrams was most interested in — the kids, particularly the flick’s director (Riley Griffiths), are passionate about what they’re doing, and it reminded me of the real-life teens who spent most of the ’80s making a shot-for-shot remake of Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark. Anyone who’s seen the results of that seven-year experiment has found it completely charming. But the filmmaking passion we see in the kids here doesn’t translate to the actual zombie flick when we finally see it during the end credits. It is, like Super 8 itself, a simulacrum more dependent on fond nostalgia than on sincere engagement with the story.
Elle Fanning, as the girl who lends some grace to the zombie flick, does likewise with Super 8, doing a lot with the little that is written for her. The rest of the cast are moved around like underemoting chesspieces, responding helplessly to the chaos that ensues when an alien is loose in town. The alien stuff here just feels so skimpy and half-hearted, an afterthought. This is not the kind of script that would’ve passed muster with the ’80s Spielberg, which raises the question of why it got a thumbs-up from him as a producer. (Maybe in his youth he was a soft-hearted director — Spielberg became synonymous with “happy ending” for a while — but also a tough-minded producer, and now it’s the reverse.) When the film gives itself over, in the last act, to the alien material nobody cares about, it dies rapidly.
But you can’t go home again. The young hero (Joel Courtney) has lost his mother, and nothing will bring her back or make things the same; his father (Kyle Chandler), the town deputy, seems as grief-dazed as his son is. The glory days are gone; mothers die randomly and Spielberg is no longer in his prime. For about twelve seconds I entertained the notion that the alien running amok, terrorizing the suburbs, was a metaphor for the disaster at Three Mile Island, which we see referenced on a TV at one point. That was the end of a small kind of American innocence, one that trusted in nuclear power as a workable alternative to oil, which, what with Khomeini all over the news that year, was looking less and less attractive. Super 8 looks back fondly on a year that was pretty chaotic to live through, but doesn’t have much to say about that, as it turns out. Nor is the alien an effective metaphor for the overpowering feelings that attend both grief and coming of age. It’s all very passive: the characters don’t want anything except to make their little movie and, later, to stay alive.And in a movie released in 2011, the girl must be rescued and the first black character we see is also the first to die. Now that feels like 1979. Or 1939.
link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=20762&reviewer=416
originally posted: 06/12/11 08:34:46