And if nothing else, J.J. Abrams' expensively-mounted Steven Spielberg pastiche, Super 8 (2011) proves his point.
In terms of specifics, Super 8 dramatizes two interconnected tales. One is about a group of friends who throw everything (including the kitchen sink...) into the making of their own backyard horror film. The other, far less interesting story concerns an alien who escapes from military custody and nearly destroys the friends' town.
In the latter story, Super 8's creature or "monster" conveniently represents whatever the screenplay happens to need at any given moment -- either horror or wonder, by the roll of the dice -- and never becomes a consistent-seeming presence, or a character as memorable or colorful as the beasties depicted in Jaws (1975), E.T. (1982), Close Encounters (1978) or Jurassic Park (1993).
In other words, the director knows very precisely how to make a product that on a superficial level resembles something else you already know and like: a Star Trek movie that feels like Star Trek, for example. But in some cases, Abrams doesn't quite capture the heart of the thing he so colorfully simulates. Consequently, something deep and human is sacrificed in his vision. Occasionally you don't notice this facet of Abrams' work because the execution of his mimicry is so dynamic and accomplished.You get distracted by the bells and whistles.
Super 8 has a lot of bells and whistles. But what it needed was heart.
"Bad things happen... but you can still live."
As the movie commences (with a great first shot), Joe's mother has died in an industrial accident, and a mourning Joe lives with his in-denial father, Jackson (Kyle Chandler), the local police deputy.
While working on an amateur zombie movie with his friends, Joe -- the project's make-up artist -- begins to fall for lovely Alice (Elle Fanning), a girl from the wrong side of the tracks, and daughter to the man who indirectly caused his mother's death.
While shooting their Super-8 movie at a local train station, Alice, Joe and their friends witness a horrifying train wreck. Something monstrous escapes from the wreckage, and begins to wreak havoc upon the small town...
"I know that's your camera, sir, but technically, that's my film."
Super 8 also gains a lot of mileage from "broken" families, a Spielberg tradition in The Sugarland Express (1971) E.T. and even Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989). Abrams also knowingly evokes Spielberg-ian film compositions, namely the commonly-seen "Jurassic Park"-styled shot in which characters gaze upward, mouths agape, at something wondrous, off-camera.
Most importantly, however, Super 8 involves the idea of something alien or foreign invading normal suburban America, whether that something be a shark, an alien, ghosts, Nazis, or monsters. It's not a coincidence that Super 8 takes place in 1979, the year of the Three Mile Island disaster. Something was roiling under "normal" life in America of this span...and it seemed mysterious and possibly frightening.
Considered rationally, the narrative makes precious little sense. For instance, the audience is asked to believe that a tormented alien who can read humans minds has never, before interfacing with Joe, encountered an individual who has experienced and understood loss and personal pain. You see, contact with the boy and the boy's advice that "bad things happen, but you can keep living" prove the very impetus that redirects the angry alien towards escape rather than vengeance. The alien puts down his pastime of eating human body parts, and decides to phone...er...go home.
This resolution feels like a creative cop-out, especially since the creature already boasts access to Elle Fanning's Alice, and certainly she -- having lost a mother too -- understands the nature of pain. Why is it that after reading so many human minds, the monster only achieves closure through rapport with Joe? This whole idea -- upon which the plot resolution hinges -- is undeveloped at best and contrived at worst.
Another poorly-constructed moment in the film's third act finds Joe's father -- without explanation or apparent precipitating cause -- deciding to forgive the man who, through negligence, is responsible for his wife's death. This change of heart is supposed to be a heartwarming moment, but there's no lead-up to it, and no character growth that reaches a particular crescendo. Spielberg movies may be relentlessly sentimental, but this quality of his work is usually earned. The character "growth" in Super 8 feels capricious and mechanical by comparison.
Super 8's emotional climax seems off in some significant way too. Joseph must choose to let go of the locket that belonged to his dead mother. This piece of jewelry is all that he's got left of her now, but the movie's point -- as seen in the monster's epiphany -- is "letting go." The monster lets go of his pain at Joe's urging, and ascends to the stars. In this same spirit, Joe releases his mother's locket and lets go of his pain and loss too.
Again, I get the idea: don't hold onto the past. Live in the present. And yet this message is utterly incongruous and somewhat insincere in a movie that lingers -- nay wallows -- in the notion of the past. The whole movie lives in so-called "better" days. It holds on tightly to the fairy tale of a "simpler past," so tell me again why Joe should willingly let go of the only tangible memory of his lost mother?
This valedictory moment, like so many others in the films, does not ring true on an emotional level. When he's twenty, Joe will really wish he held onto that locket...
The few original touches that Abrams brings to Super 8 also tend, in some way, to work against the film's spirit. The big special effects set piece of the film is a spectacular train crash. This crash doesn't feel Spielbergian in any sense of the word. Spielberg's style is best described as grounded reality plus a touch of magic. A simple American town encounters a voracious great white shark that is almost supernatural, for example. A boy meets an alien who is lost, and needs a friend...just like him, for another. Spielberg's films are grounded in our reality, and there's usually only one magical quality involved, so that believability is maintained.
Here, by contrast, the train crash brazenly defies the laws of physics and is so over-the-top catastrophic you can't believe for a moment that anyone would survive it, let alone children bystanders nearby, at the scene. Train cars blow apart, launch through the air like missiles, explode into towers of flame...and the movie loses every bit of grounded reality it has painstakingly crafted up until that point. A train crash of this cartoon nature belongs in another movie, but not in a Spielberg homage.
The other "new" touch in Super 8 involves the depiction of the alien. He has been tortured by America for years, and is angry about his treatment. This disposition seems to reflect the post-Bush II, War on Terror mindset, not Ronald Reagan's more noble mindset of the 1980s. In May of 1988, President Reagan declared his desire to "bring an end to the abhorrent practice of torture" worldwide by supporting the Convention Against Torture and Inhuman Treatment or Punishment, for instance. The point of this rumination is that back in the "simpler" 1980s, we believed we were the good guys, and Spielberg films reflected this steadfast belief. Nobody in the American military tortured the aliens in Close Encounters. We feared E.T. would be captured and studied in the 1982 film, but I don't know that we feared our government would actively and sadistically torture the guy. I mean...we didn't think he was going to be water boarded. The torture angle is a new touch that reflects our times, but alas also seems out of synch with the Spielberg-ian painting kit in Super 8.
I would hate to give the impression that I think Super 8 is a terrible or worthless film. It isn't. The parts of the film I enjoyed and admired the most involved the children working hard to make their zombie movie. Over the end credits, their final cut gets played, and it is a funny, affectionate, imaginative delight. All the performances in the film, particularly by the children, are very strong as well.
But the movie's story doesn't really make much sense, no emotional connection is ever forged with the badly-designed, ugly monster, and the score by Michael Giacchino falls well short of the standard set by John Williams for Spielberg. Most damningly, the film resolutely lacks a sense of wonder. I remember very well the days of Spielberg's magic; the days when he made one seemingly perfect blockbuster movie after another. He went from strength to strength, from Jaws to Close Encounters to Raiders of the Lost Ark (let's forget 1941 for the moment...) to E.T., and made movie fans for life out of children of my generation. The man can do wonder, and do it well.
Super 8 feels more like second tier, quasi-Spielberg fare, like Lady in White (1988) or The Monster Squad. It knows what it wants to be and what it should be, but it just doesn't quite have the chops -- or the emotional honesty -- to play on the master's level. I held high expectations for Super 8, it's true, but that's part of the Spielberg magic. He rarely disappoints. You can't make a movie based on his work, and expect not to be held to his standard of excellence.
The child director in Super 8 keeps trumpeting the idea that "production values" will make or break his film, but of course, that's not the case. Production values do not a masterpiece make.
Someone needed to tell J.J. Abrams to stop obsessing about production values and turn on his heart light instead.