Saturday, June 11, 2011

Train Wreck: J.J. Abrams' Super 8

In Super 8, this summer's highly anticipated SF thriller, writer/director J.J. Abrams and producer Steven Spielberg create a cluttered junkyard of a movie. While many of the unabashedly positive reviews suggest a work that's both thrilling and full of feeling, Super 8 is actually quite the opposite. Abrams and Spielberg have filled the picture with so many conflicting invocations of previous movies, from Close Encounters of the Third Kind to Stand By Me, that it has no voice of its own. Super 8 is an inchoate hall of mirrors that casts reflections of popular film tropes rather than a coherently exciting story.

Initially they do seize on a compelling dramatic idea. In the fictional town of Lillian, Ohio, in the late seventies, a group of young friends gather to make a Super 8 zombie movie. Living in their small industrial town, the only cultural feeding ground for these kids is the playground of pop music, television and horror films. There is a shaggy dog thrill they get from testing their loyalties and smarts (not to mention, their raging hormones) by acting them out in their low-budget monster extravaganza.(I also spent my teenage years in the small industrial city of Oshawa, Ontario, doing super 8 horror films with my friends.).

When they attempt to get 'production values' on the cheap by shooting a love scene one night at an abandoned train station, these budding artists get more than they bargained for when they witness and film a train derailment. They also discover that it was no ordinary train wreck. But rather than going on to explore how these eager filmmakers use their amateur craft to uncover a possible military conspiracy, Abrams takes leave for his own cultural feeding ground: Spielbergland. In creating a tribute to his film idol, Abrams ends up however denying himself an identity.

Yet Super 8 isn't really a worthy homage to Spielberg. In movies like Jaws, Close Encounters and E.T., Steven Spielberg's film craft grew out of emotionally rounded stories that found their roots in the small suburban daydreams of the people who lived there. Spielberg tapped the sometimes wistful pining of people in tiny communities who continually hoped for bigger things. (In the case of Jaws, poor police chief Brody was begging for a bigger boat.) But Super 8 lives in the abstractions of movie lore rather than the recognized world of people. As he showed in his TV series Alias and Lost, J.J. Abrams always comes up with riveting concepts in familiar genres, but they end up having little satisfying follow-through.

Super 8 begins with 13-year-old Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney), a quietly sensitive boy left grieving after his mother gets crushed to death in an industrial accident. Like the fatherless Elliott in E.T., Joe tries to emotionally compensate for her loss by helping his friend Charles (Riley Griffiths), an overweight and insecure film auteur, make his horror classic. (Charles is a cross between a teenage Orson Welles and George Romero.) Joe also joins the crew because his secret crush, Alice (Elle Fanning), is one of the film's stars. But while Abrams plays off the scatter shot frustrations of young school friends fighting to be noticed, he has no gift for developing their frustrations. Their banter soon becomes as cacophonous as the chatter of the kids in The Goonies. When Charles tells Joe that he cast Alice because he was attracted to her, it was news to me. Until that point, he struck me as the kind of adolescent boy who still sought refuge in the world of other boys.

Steven Spielberg and J.J. Abrams.
Once the kids develop their footage from the train station, however, the movie begins to truly go off the rails. As the military swoops in to take charge, lead by Colonel Nelic (Noah Emmerich) as their grim reaper, issuing curfews while hunting down the kids who shot the footage, Abrams loses all threads of the story. People (and their dogs) start disappearing as the town is being torn apart by an unseen foe, but the media is nowhere to be found. I understand that the national news media by this time was starting to snooze, but they didn't disappear. Since the nuclear calamity of Three Mile Island was happening simultaneously nearby, it's highly unlikely reporters would have ignored a town invasion. In the haphazard way Abrams directs these scenes the town people don't seem to have phones in their homes. Nobody bothers to contact anyone to get to the bottom of the crisis. Joe's father is the town sheriff but he's almost as ineffectual as everyone else. (The town of Amity did a better job up against their oily mayor in Jaws.)

The payoff of Super 8 is supposedly the emotional closure for Joe over his mother's death. But rather than establish a resolution that develops out of calamity (as Spielberg and screenwriter Melissa Mathison did for Elliott in E.T.), Abrams simply imposes connections that aren't there. When you discover the mystery of the story, for all that Abrams does with it, you end up wishing it had stayed a mystery. The healing conclusion, where it's suggested that bad things happen and it's no one's fault, is patently empty and false. What in Spielberg became a recognition of how loss can both bring grief and heal; in Abrams, it becomes a sentimental afterthought.

Despite the clutter and noise, though, Joel Courney has a quiet and inquisitive presence that's quite touching, especially in his scenes with Alice. Meanwhile Elle Fanning continues to show the same prodigious qualities that made her such a marvel earlier this year in Sofia Coppola's Somewhere. She's particularly charming in a scene where she starts to play a zombie and slowly closes in on Joe. You're not sure if she's going to kiss him or bite him. But Super 8 overall lacks the delicate touch that brings scenes like these to life. It's buried instead under the weight of the movies it pays tribute to. By the time the end credits reveal the final version of the super 8 film the kids produced, it displays more charm and personality than the movie that documented it.

 Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. His five-part lecture series, Roads to Perdition: The Allure of Film Noir, begins at the JCC Prosserman on Wednesday, June 15th from 1pm-3pm.

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