REVIEW: J.J. Abrams' Spielberg Homage Super 8 Is Less Than Super

Movieline Score:

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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Comments

  • writefunny says:

    Wow. That's a complete over-analysis of a fun summer popcorn movie. Original it may not be but this movie is incredibly fun to watch. I anticipated each of his clever visual homages to the movies I loved growing up.
    It all comes down to one thing -- is the movie good? And it's way beyond good. It's funny, scary, emotional, thrilling and sometimes all of those at the same time. Saw it last night - movie started and I was like a 12 year old kid -- jumping in my seat and having a blast. And everyone around me -- doing the exact same thing. The movie makes you giddy. And is going to have fantastic word of mouth.

  • huntergrayson says:

    I adored it, but know that a large part of that is (a) for personal reasons [my mother died in December, so my heartstrings were tugged immensely!] and (b) seeing it with the ideal audience of USC Film School Geeks, all of us thinking back to the rush of our first amateur projects.
    I think it's going to be interesting to see how the reaction is divided among demographic lines - I enjoyed it immensely, but only vaguely remember the movies and time that Abrams is referencing and imitating - I don't think I've seen E.T. since I was an actual child. The huge nostalgia trip factor *worked* for me, but I understand why some may just view it as slavish imitation. I should probably brush up on my early Spielberg.
    [Sidenote: while at aforementioned filmschool, I have to thank Steph for some very lovely emails that encouraged and inspired me to keep pursuing the dream/Industry. Alas, they're lost to a Hotmail hack now, but her kind words meant - and still mean - a lot to me.]
    I've been a fan of J.J's since Alias and think this is his step to the next level.

  • cap says:

    I think it's going to be interesting to see how the reaction is divided among demographic lines - I enjoyed it immensely, but only vaguely remember the movies and time that Abrams is referencing and imitating - I don't think I've seen E.T. since I was an actual child. The huge nostalgia trip factor worked for me, but I understand why some may just view it as slavish imitation. I should probably brush up on my early Spielberg.

  • AS says:

    I never really understood all the hype surrounding this movie before it came out. I saw the trailer, it looks average at best. And why is Abrams getting so much praise these days. He's no genius. Let's take a look at some of his films: Star Trek, Mission Impossible III....... Oh, hold on a sec, so that's it? Well that's a filmography that certainly deserves high praise!

  • casting couch says:

    Given this movie's provenance, an in-depth analysis is particularly necessary.
    And you make it sound like creating a " fun summer popcorn movie" is a piece of cake. Getting all the ingredients right is hard work—and some luck.

  • zooeyglass1999 says:

    I thought it was really good. A solid 8. The kid actors were great, the nostalgia was great, and the first hour of the film was very well done. It kind of loses its way in the last half as it becomes more standard action film but overall its a good (almost great) movie.

  • Joe says:

    "I never really understood all the hype surrounding this movie before it came out. I saw the trailer, it looks average at best. And why is Abrams getting so much praise these days. He's no genius."
    Abrams gets praise because he gets hype. That's his schtick, essentially: announce a vague title and premise well in advance, let his fans salivate over every last hint or teaser (even if its completely asinine...watch people spend weeks debating what a picture of a Slusho cup means when it has no payoff, whatsoever), make allusions to some sort of twist or secret within the plot and then build immense hype for the opening weekend. Sure enough, that passes and in the end he's made millions and audiences are left scratching their heads at just how unoriginal and bland the flick was. They get sucked in from all the hype and he's nothing more than a critically acceptable version of Shyamalan at this point.
    Star Trek was a breath of fresh air but the big "oooh there's a secret, so spend years going nuts over what it might be when its really just a ripoff of everything Spielberg did years ago" MO is already stale.

  • tim says:

    i cant' stand abrams--after Lost--never again--and he doesn't seem to have many original ideas--just finished watching USA's la femme nikita and was shocked to see how much of Alias was taken from that show.

  • jt says:

    Yawned through maybe half of it and then turned my back on it. So dull and boring I felt cheated out of my money.

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