(FR have lives and obligations, so they can’t always write about what they want when they want. Thus, Videodrome, wherein they’ll get after movies they might not so much have had the time to explore during runs at theaters. Super 8 has been released to DVD and Blu-ray today. Nathan saw it at a second-run theater, but then got life-busy. Drome up.)
Facing the unknown – the real unknown, something totally beyond our realm of understanding or concept of the universe – should conjure in us an assortment of emotions; fear, awe, excitement, anxiety. It’s a situation that most of us will never be in, but no other director in the history of movies has been able to imagine the possibilities of facing the unknown more acutely than Steven Spielberg. He has been a box office champion, a critical darling, and the bane of art house crowds for nearly 40 years now. Some people find his work too manipulative, as if he’s the first director to try to elicit some sort of reaction from his audiences (COUGH COUGH Hitchcock COUGH). This aversion to manipulation in Spielberg seems to have less to do with the actual process of manipulating emotions (which is something that just about every movie does to one degree or another) and more to do with fear of imagination.
In his finest moments, Steven Spielberg turned our fears into unexpected blasts of awe and amazement. When we were with Spielberg, our imaginations were no longer dangerous; it was the real world that threatened us. With Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial he presented us with creatures from outer space that were not frightening in any way; they were kind and curious, even if they were stereotypically far more intelligent than us. These fantasies helped us to conceptualize a world beyond us that was full of good possibilities instead of bad.
Now imagine, if you will, that Steven Spielberg had been born in the late ’60s and that he had grown up in southern Ohio instead of southern California. Then imagine that this Steven Spielberg was named J.J. Abrams.
Last summer, this J.J. Abrams released Super 8, a movie designed in almost every way to emulate the Spielberg of Close Encounters and E.T. Abrams grew up right when Spielberg and George Lucas were taking over the minds of teenagers everywhere; and though the movie is a homage in the most loving way, Super 8 has autobiographical tones that keep it warm and personal. But the fact that Spielberg is a producer on Super 8 and that his Amblin Entertainment logo appears before the start of the movie puts Abrams in a shadow that he can’t escape from. Taken on its own, Super 8 is a decent, entertaining movie; but if it reminds us of those Spielberg masterpieces, Super 8 only serves to tell us exactly how great those movies were, and perhaps lead us to believe that that sort of movie can never be made again.
The similarities between Super 8 and those classic Spielberg pictures are not just superficial; at its core Super 8 shares similar values and concerns with Close Encounters and E.T. Like those films, it has children coming into contact with beings from space; and like those films, the alien in question is only menacing because human beings have perceived it to be, and in this case, forced it tobe. He (is it a he?) is a misunderstood alien, really – just as our main human protagonist is misunderstood! Through children, the alien being is understood and is able to gain the ultimate freedom of returning back to his (her?) own species. For both Spielberg and Abrams, the lesson seems to be that our imaginations can never coexist with our realities. The presence of some alien species or ghost (see Poltergeist) is simply too much for us to live with; not because our imaginations are weak, but because we, in our actions, are bad. When Joe Lamb, the young hero, is being held in a death grip by the giant alien foe/friend (who happens to look a little bit like a Transformer without all the chrome), they look into each other’s souls and understand that there is good in each other, and therefore good in their separate worlds. For the alien this is a new experience with humans. The strange creature has spent years being tortured, prodded, and caged for the sake of human research. The creature’s vision of humanity is bleak indeed. The good between these two beings, human and alien, is fleeting, though; not enough to sustain co-existence.
Super 8 is a fascinating little movie. Its strongest qualities can be found in its evocation of nostalgia and referential parlor games. Spielberg via Abrams is a weird ride. When Abrams tries to ape Spielberg’s affinity for youthful banter, it’s a flat cacophony. Abrams, it seems, tries to throw in every variation of teenager and child ever seen in a Spielberg movie, including the vacuous teenage girl from Poltergeist. It’s too much. One of the great charms of a Spielberg film is that it reminded you of what it was like to be a child, not just privately, but socially too. Spielberg was clever enough to know that childhood and children are often funny. No one in Super 8 is given enough time to give us any good laughs.
The editing and overall style of the film is miles away from Spielberg’s classical Hollywood-influenced gloss. Like so many modern directors, Abrams is addicted to close-ups, poor compositions and rapid cutting in the worst way. This addiction depletes Super 8 of the one Spielberg trope that it should be trying hardest to ape – awe. For all the fun that Super 8 can be, only on a few occasions do we get the sense that we are looking at something truly incredible, beautiful, and inexplicable. It can leave the viewer with the sense that imagination is dead.
Take your kids to see Super 8. And then when they’ve loved it, rent Close Encounters of the Third Kind or E.T. Once they’ve seen the real article, they won’t be able to go back.