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Super 8 (J.J. Abrams, 2011)


Blockbuster moviemaking seems to have come full-circle with the arrival of J.J. Abrams Super 8. This muddled B-grade sci-fi fantasy carelessly repurposes the gussied up B-movies that defined Steven Spielberg’s career, resulting in a confused pastiche of themes and techniques that Spielberg himself has frequently employed to better effect. With its suburban setting, its underage protagonists, its reliance upon overblown visual effects, its daddy issues and its insistence that aliens are emotionally accessible, it checks off many of the tick boxes that once made Spielberg into Hollywood’s most bankable filmmaker. Intended as an official homage (Spielberg himself serves as an executive producer), the film does Spielberg its biggest favor by making his boyish fantasies look like masterworks in comparison.


Despite Super 8’s title and its introduction of a group of scrappy young filmmakers who want to create a low-budget zombie epic, filmmaking becomes almost irrelevant to its ultimate plot, which attempts to serve too many masters. Abrams’ confused script at once wants to be about a young boy’s mourning, the camaraderie of young boys on an adventure and the invasion of an alien menace. Spielberg himself might have been able to weave this into something coherent (indeed, strong elements of Close Enounters…, The Goonies, Jurassic Park, E.T., Jaws, and Poltergeist can be detected here), but the combination never gels. For all of the self-conscious Spielbergian nods that Abrams makes during Super 8, his film is shallow, with only the most obvious of subtext (gratingly underlined via Abram’s ridiculous overreliance upon lens flare). Super 8 ultimately feels less like anything that Spielberg directed than M. Night Shyamalan’s ridiculously stupid Signs.


Super 8’s real sin lies in its underestimation of its audience’s intelligence. Much of its first hour promises a nostalgic look at boyhood ambitions, but these threads are literally derailed when a train with a malicious alien comes crashing into the imaginary small town that Abrams has painstakingly established. After this point, the setup is jettisoned, the relationships of the well-cast kids fade into the background, and Elle Fanning, whose preternaturally strong performance is clearly the film’s greatest asset, is whisked off screen. The standard-issue action movie nonsense that follows fails to excite and the film culminates in an absurd finale that attempts to tie together the mess that has come before. If Spielberg was noisy, as coarse or as sentimental as Abrams is in Super 8, he would have never risen to his current stature. Abrams panders to his audience and wrongly assuming that more explosions, more pathos, and more clichés will provide a path to more approval.



Jeremy Heilman