Screening Log #32: Super 8 (2011)

Written by J.J. Abrams
Directed by J.J. Abrams
Starring Joel Courtney, Elle Fanning, Kyle Chandler, and Riley Griffiths




Born in 1966, J.J. Abrams was at his most impressionable when Steven Spielberg reeled off his nearly unimpeachable run between Jaws (1975) and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984). A love for Spielberg’s work has been apparent in various manners through Abrams’ own thematic and visual concerns in his film and TV work. The strategy of concealing the monster in Cloverfield, building tension by negative presence, is an example of a decision inspired by, if not directly lifting from, Spielberg’s Jaws. So, that Abrams so explicitly created a film that intends to be an homage to the spirit of these works by Spielberg, and is produced by Spielberg himself, in Super 8, is not surprising. In a culture inundated by nostalgia – and, of late, the interrogation of what this may say about our current moment – this act of creating while looking backward is somewhat de rigueur.

Super 8 begins by foregrounding the sense of loss experienced by America with dissolution of the traditional nuclear family. Joe Lamb’s, Joel Courtney, mother is killed in an accident at the steel mill. This accident can be seen as a conservative manifestation of the harm done to the nuclear family by the increased role of women in the work force; compounded by her desire to work, Joe’s mother’s transgression into the male-dominated field of mill work is violently rewarded by a gruesome death. So, learn your lesson: stay at home, moms! Joe’s father, Jackson, played by Kyle Chandler, is a police officer in their town and is either so consumed by his work or sense of loss, that on the day of his wife’s funeral, rather than be present with his son and friends to share his grief, he brings a man in to jail in the middle of the wake.

Super 8 is set in a Spielbergian suburbia, where the consistence of daily life’s uninterestingness is pervasive and smothering, where families are relatable, and where youths on the precipice of adolescence seek escape by any means available. The most available means of escape for any person is via the imagination, and Joe, escapes by aiding his friend Charles, Riley Griffiths, in the creation of a zombie film. After enlisting Alice to play the female romantic anchor in the film, the group of young teens happen to be filming beside a train station when an accident happens and a train, rather loudly and, perhaps, over-explodingly, de-rails. What follows is more plot, loosely adapted from the Spielberg playbook, the E.T. chapter, wherein the government military invades the small town looking for an alien who escaped from the wreckage. This alien may or may not be understood and may or may not simply want to go home. Abrams then proceeds to duplicate his trick from Cloverfield, which was lifting its trick from Jaws, and, at this stage of removal, homage becomes pastiche.

Abrams’ script is heavy-handed and obvious with its foreshadowing. After taking a cube from the crash home with him, the cube bursts through Joe’s wall, right through a poster of a space ship… gee, I wonder what those cubes could be a part of? Jackson closes the door in his son’s face when he comes home to find his father crying, because he’s emotionally unavailable, you see; he closes the door… of emotion! Late in the film, a supporting character gets too stoned to drive and the kids all loudly lament that “Drugs are bad!”. Whether this is a genuine statement by Abrams, or a winking joke about the media’s anti-drug overtness is moot in the face of its coarse obviousness in either direction.

Super 8 is a film that knows all the dance moves; it borrows structures and elements from better movies, but repurposes them clumsily and without subtlety. It elicits serviceable performances from its actors, but none of the same emotional impact generated by Jaws or E.T. At his best, Spielberg has an uncanny ability to strike a balance between the personal and universal, between a particular artistic vision and popular appeal, and between style and substance. Abrams’ film is entertaining and its visual effects are solid, however, there’s more to be said for cinema, and Spielberg, for that matter, than “Bad things happen, but you can move on” and copious, and distracting, amounts of lens flare.

One Response to “Screening Log #32: Super 8 (2011)”
  1. pallen1138 says:

    Everything about it is obvious, Abrams tries too hard in the wrong places and not hard enough where he should have and after all that I still really had a good time with Super 8. Except the end, the end is rubbish.

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