Like many of us, director JJ Abrams is a fan of the early Steven Spielberg, but unlike many of us, he has fashioned a feature-length fan mail in the form of Super 8. Someone should have told him that other people’s outpourings of adoration, much like other people’s Facebook updates, are interesting only for a while, and once our voyeuristic instincts are spent, the attention begins to stray. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Super 8 is set in 1979, and its story is this: the authority-figure father from Jaws is reduced to a single parent like the mom in E.T. His son is like the boy in E.T., sensitive and craving a special kind of connection. Their tranquil suburbia is invaded by the id-monster from Jaws, which may just be a benevolent outer-space visitor like the creatures in E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
Apart from these broad story arcs, Abrams invests his film with extraordinarily specific themes and images from the films Spielberg produced and/or directed — which means we get the boys on bicycles from E.T., the girl in front of a television set from Poltergeist, the snooping kids and the underground tunnel from The Goonies…
The homages are so explicit and so numerous that the film, after a point, begins to feel like product placement for the Spielberg oeuvre. You begin to see Spielbergisms everywhere. We keep waiting for the town’s Jews to be rounded up and squeezed into Kraków-bound trains, only to be saved by an archaeologist with a bullwhip and a fedora.
Super 8 begins with a splendid evocation of not just the era as we remember it from the movies but also the rhythms of the era. (Has there been a quieter blockbuster than Close Encounters of the Third Kind?)
Abrams, in these portions, is attuned to the Spielbergian specialty of grave children gravitating towards adulthood. Young Joe (Joel Courtney, leading a fine cast), the protagonist who’s lost his mother, declines an invitation to dine with a friend’s large and rambunctious family, only to come home and find his father weeping in the bathroom. One parent is dead; the other is dysfunctional.
Joe’s escape arrives in the form of escapist cinema, a schlocky zombie movie that is being cobbled together on Super 8 mm film by Joe’s best friend Charles (Riley Griffiths), along with a band of buddies. Meanwhile, outside, a mystery is gradually established, an otherworldly series of events that demands a rational explanation. But as the fake monster movie being made by Charles and Company mutates into a real monster movie, all the fun drains away.
The enormous build-up leads to a hackneyed conclusion that seems to occur on its own, with apparently little use for the characters we have come to know. The truly frustrating aspect of Super 8 is that Abrams is so busy referencing Spielberg that he forgets to channel his virtuosic ability to wring emotion from the most jaded hearts. We watch the film from a distance, dry-eyed, as if it were something created by the assembly line from AI: Artificial Intelligence.