Remember that classic scene in E.T. where the government agents violently interrogate and then kill Elliot’s school teacher? Or remember that scene in The Goonies where Chunk’s dad and Mikey’s dad expose their history of mutual hatred? How about that scene in Close Encounters where the aliens eat human flesh?
Yeah. Neither do I. But apparently J.J. Abrams does. Those three things are all things that happen in Super 8, Abrams’s presumptive homage to the fun sci-fi features of his childhood, like those mentioned above. And I only bring them up this way because the in-kind difference that makes those scenes sound stupid in those respective movies is what makes Super 8 kind of a problem.
I’ll start by saying that Super 8 is best described as a mostly classically Spielbergian film, contrasting a rollicking, wondrous adventure with the personal journeys of its characters. In that tradition, it’s got Joel Courtney as Joe, the bright-eyed, slightly shy protagonist pre-teen, and Elle Fanning as the equally pre-teen, equally bright-eyed light-touch love interest. There’s an arc about Joe’s grief over his recently-deceased mother and about his relationship with his dad (played by Kyle Chandler, who is quite boring in this role). It’s also got banter between children, the aspect that most securely anchors this film in reality.
But it’s also got, as alluded to above, some seriously action-influenced elements that would have stuck out like a sore thumb in a Spielberg film. In essence, as many people have said before about this film, it’s basically two different movies, and only one of those qualifies as a throwback vintage summer romp. The other is kind of a mess.
Before I get started in earnest, I want to hedge against the obvious problem with thinking of Super 8 as chiefly a Steven Spielberg homage. Abrams is certainly allowed to make his own movie in any way he wants, and to pigeonhole this film into being only the light-hearted Spielberg-y romp that it seems to (at least partially) want to be would obviously be unfair.
But I have some related concerns, which I think are completely fair. Whether your film is a direct homage or not, it’s still squarely a bad idea to make some parts of your film feel like The Goonies and make other parts feel like Transformers. Because these two worlds don’t collide as neatly as Abrams might think. These two types of storytelling are not only stylistically incompatible, but also philosophically opposed.
One explores the emotional territory of the response to the unknown, but the other relies on the outsized menace of a slavering beast. One is about growing up and learning about the world and yourself, and the other is mostly just busy action. One is philosophical and wondrous, and the other is pulpy and escapist. One is Roddenberry and the connection with new consciousness, and the other is Lovecraft and the horror of the unknowable.
In short, Steven Spielberg’s style was never really suited for the kind of specified fear that monster movies play with. His style has mostly been about the fear of growing up, and how that fear starts to fade when we connect with these monsters and realize that they aren’t at all the monsters we assumed they were. The monster here remains almost entirely a monster until the bitter end.
You can sort of tell that Abrams knows he’s getting this wrong, too. After an extended running-and-dodging sequence in the alien monster’s hidey hole, the whole production slows down for what is supposed to be a heart-felt moment of shared experience between Joe and the alien. But it’s not much of a connection (the beast can’t speak, and its face is uncompromisingly non-anthropomorphized), and the ham-fisted “connection” is fleeting, lasting mere seconds. It’s almost as if Abrams realized he was too far into Cloverfield territory and had to pull back with a half-assed pathos-grab.
This scene looks even more awkward when you compare it to the scenes it’s presumably paying homage to. The two characters in Super 8 bond over how much pain and meaningless suffering there is in the world. Compare that to a heartfelt connection over Reese’s Pieces, or friends enacting a pirate fantasy, or an inter-species musical exchange. Super 8‘s moment of understanding isn’t as elegant or as fun as any of these. The film just doesn’t put in the work and EARN the barrier-crossing connection the way Spielberg nearly always did.
There’s a couple of blatant pathos-grabs near the end of this film, but this one is the most awkward. One of the arcs (the one about letting go and becoming your own person and growing up) culminates in a symbolic gesture that actually did make me thrill a little (but only for a moment; within seconds, a bit of dialogue between father and son seems to make the opposite point, that there’s no need to grow up so long as daddy’s still there). The balance between busy monster-fueled action and actual human-being-fueled adventure is just all out of whack, making Super 8 feel distinctly un-Spielberg-y.
And that’s fine, Abrams gets to make whatever movie he wants to make. He doesn’t HAVE to make a Spielberg-y movie. The failure here is in choosing to try to make two movies at once; it’s the smashing together of these two incompatible approaches to the unknown that makes Super 8 so difficult to just sit back and enjoy.
(Image: the film’s decidedly VERY Spielberg-y poster, which I love)