REVIEW: J.J. Abrams' Spielberg Homage Super 8 Is Less Than Super
Editor's Note: This review may contain spoilers. It all depends on how surprised you want to be by the "secret" plot details of Super 8.
Maybe it's a coincidence that the pop-culture cycle and childhood itself are contracting at a dizzying rate: Today's blockbuster movie based on a comic book is old news by the following Friday, when the next blockbuster movie based on a comic book arrives. Simultaneously, 11-year-olds are often just as savvy about social media, fashion trends and celebrity gossip as their parents are, if not more so. Grown-ups are trying to stay young by revisiting the favorite refuges of their youth, while kids are all too eager to grow up. We're a culture that's simultaneously trying to prolong childhood and squeeze it into a veal pen.
The timing couldn't be more opportunistic for a new Steven Spielberg movie that mines the thrilling uncertainties of childhood -- even if it happens to have been made by J.J. Abrams. In Super 8, a group of kids in a Ohio steel town circa 1979 band together to make their own movie with a borrowed camera, in the process opening a can of forbidden secrets. As lore (and production notes) would have it, Abrams himself made movies like that as a kid, just as Spielberg had done years before. Spielberg's were in 8mm; Abrams' were in Super 8. When Abrams and his close childhood friend Matt Reeves (who'd go on to direct first the Abrams-produced Cloverfield and then Let Me In) were teenagers, they entered films they'd made in a Super 8 competition, and were later approached by Spielberg's office to restore the 8mm films the director himself had made as a youth. As that made-for-Hollywood backstory suggests, Super 8, directed by Abrams and produced by Spielberg, represents a merging of similar sensibilities, and it might have been a chance for the student to build upon the legacy of the master.
But watching Super 8, I couldn't always tell if the movie was teasing out my own childhood memories or just memories of old Steven Spielberg movies -- it wasn't long before I figured out the latter was winning the day. From technical details (intentional lens flares a la Close Encounters; extravagant, special-effects-laden action sequences) to emotional underpinnings (incomprehensible creatures -- and human beings -- who just need a little understanding; families huddled together, staring at something-or-other in the sky), Super 8 is such an authentic homage to the glory and excess of Spielberg that it barely has its own identity. It's been body-snatched by its own influences.
Super 8 opens with an effective stroke of visual shorthand: A large sign outside a steel mill trumpets the number of days, 784, since the plant's last accident; a worker solemnly climbs up to remove those three digits and reset the number to 1. The victim of this latest accident is the mother of young Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney); in the movie's first sequence, we overhear family friends wonder aloud how Joe will deal with his mother's death, and if his somewhat remote father, Jackson (Kyle Chandler), the local deputy sheriff, will be able to care for him properly. Joe's friends have other concerns: Summer is about to start, and bossy Charles (Riley Griffiths) plans to use his free time to make a movie, which he hopes to enter in a young filmmakers' festival. Joe has promised to help him with makeup; he's also providing the camera, which belongs to his dad.
Joe may be numbed by his mother's death, but he's not paralyzed by it, and he's actually eager to help out with the movie -- particularly when he learns that the girl on whom he harbors a crush, Alice (Elle Fanning), is the production's de facto Teamster, even though she doesn't have a driver's license. (For the initial, secret nighttime shoot she shows up in a knock-around Dodge Challenger, a blond Kowalski-in-training.)
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