June 10, 2011

THE BIJOU: “SUPER 8” – Spielberg Much?

More articles by »
Written by: Mitch Salem
Tags: , , , , , , ,


Watch It At Home:  That’s MR. Spielberg To You
JJ Abrams’ SUPER 8 is the Beatlemania of Steven Spielberg movies.   Abrams is no doubt absolutely genuine in his reverence for classics from the 1970s and 80s like Jaws, Close Encounters, ET, Poltergeist and The Goonies, all produced or directed by the master–Abrams even brought Spielberg himself on as a producer of the movie–but as they said in that very unSpielbergian series The Wire, you come at the king, you best not miss. 
I am exactly the right age to appreciate SUPER 8, which in itself is bad news for Paramount.  I cut school to see Close Encounters on opening day, and stood on line at the Movieland in Times Square for something like 4 hours to see a sneak preview of ET a couple of weeks before it opened.  (Later that summer, there would be a weekend where Spielberg had 3 movies simultaneously in the Top 10:  ET, Poltergeist–which rumor said he’d co-directed as well as produced–and a re-release of Raiders Of the Lost Ark.)  All of this says I’m out of the demo that drives summer blockbusters in 2011, and since Super 8 exists solely to be a feature-length homage to that era, it’s a big reason the film has been tracking badly at the weekend boxoffice.  The studio has been desperately trying to raise word of mouth among younger audiences, including promotions with movie geek websites, Twitter and day-long “previews” of the film.
The bigger problem, though, is that great word of mouth requires something like a great film.  Super 8 conscientiously assembles the pieces of a Spielberg movie, but it lacks his essence; Spielberg didn’t make his great movies the way that he did because he was trying to be “Spielbergian” (that would come later, in the sad days of Hook and Always), but because it was his vision of the world.  JJ Abrams is trying, not without skill, to dub his voice onto Steven Spielberg’s song. 
Super 8 is set, of course, in a comfortable small town, where our hero Joe (Joel Courtney) has had his young life touched by a tragedy, the accidental death of his mother.  Joe’s deputy sheriff dad (Kyle Chandler) is doing the best he can, but he’s too staggered by his own grief to really make contact with Joe.  The boy instead throws himself into helping his friend Charles (Riley Griffiths) make an amateur zombie movie; Joe is in charge of make-up and other technical tasks, while their other friends (Gabriel Basso, Ryan Lee, Zach Mills) provide acting, pyrotechnics and similar necessaries.  Most important, Charles has talked Alice (Elle Fanning) into joining the cast, and she’s an ideal first love for Joe, being both beautiful and forbidden (Joe’s dad wants nothing to do with her family, because her drunken father contributed to Joe’s mother’s death).  Of course, Super 8 isn’t really about the making of that zombie movie–as all the trailers have made clear, the kids’ camera is on when a military train crashes spectacularly outside town, and something… dangerous… gets loose.  
I won’t say much more about the story,  both to avoid spoilers and because there’s not much to say; in its latter stages, Super 8 owes almost as much to Roger Corman as to Spielberg.  You won’t really be surprised when you see what was in that train, or the ways the young filmmakers team up to protect the town.  All through the film, Abrams does everything he can to suggest the look and feel of Spielberg’s movies–Larry Fong’s photography has the kind of light flares that Allen Daviau provided in ET, Michael Giacchino has composed a lush John Williams-style score (although lacking the tunefulness that make Williams’ themes still hummable 30 years later), and so on. 
Sadly, Abrams never manages to measure up to his model.  For one thing, he simply doesn’t have Spielberg’s genius with objects.  Think of the way the director used the phonograph and toy in the scene in Close Encounters where the aliens take Melinda Dillon’s son, or the stuffed animals and candy in ET, or the blank television set in Poltergeist.  You can’t copy that kind of instinctive lyricism; you either have it, or–if you aren’t Steven Spielberg–you don’t.

Even more fundamentally, Abrams isn’t interested in his characters as people the way Spielberg has been.  An example:  one of the gifts Abrams has in Super 8 is that Elle Fanning appears to have all the makings of a genuine movie star.  Early on in Super 8, before we really know who Alice is, she plays her first scene in the kids’ zombie movie, and she shocks everyone, her fellow filmmakers as well as the audience, by being flat-out brilliant, a naturally talented actress.  This is a fascinating thing to find out about her, and you’d think as the movie goes on, and she becomes a central character, you’d learn more about how she feels about acting, the way it’s affecting the way she sees her life.  But you’d be wrong; Abrams finishes the scene and never comes back to the idea.  Compare that to the way Spielberg nurtured Roy Scheider’s fear of the water in Jaws, or the relationships between the siblings in ET.  Great filmmakers understand that it’s the throwaway bits in big-budget movies that can become the ones we remember most (the scene in Jaws where Robert Shaw crushes a beer can and Richard Dreyfuss does the same with a paper cup is at least as great a moment as anything the shark does). 
Super 8 doesn’t come from a bad or cynical place–unlike just about everything else this summer, it was made because of a love of movies, not merchandising revenues.  (Be sure to stay for the closing credits, by the way, which include the homemade zombie movie–one of the best things in the picture.)  And it’s not a bad piece of work, certainly not compared to Thor or Pirates 4.  It’s been made proficiently and with affection, it’s pleasant enough to watch, it has some thrills.  But the one thing it isn’t is super.

(SUPER 8 – Paramount – 112 minutes – PG 13 – Director/Script:  JJ Abrams – Cast:  Joel Courtney, Elle Fanning, Kyle Chandler, Ron Eldard, Ryan Griffiths, Ryan Lee, Gabriel Basso, Zach Mills – Wide Release)

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."