Review: ‘Super 8′

Will Leitch
That is not Gertie and Elliott. Paramount
That is not Gertie and Elliott. Paramount

1. In his massive book "The New Biographical Dictionary of Film," David Thomson writes of Steven Spielberg's "Close Encounters Of The Third Kind:" "[The film] has a flawless wonder, such that might be the first film ever made ... a tribute to the richness of the ordinary human imagination ... it reveals Spielberg as an admiring explorer of the mind's power." "Super 8," essentially J.J. Abrams' version of "Close Encounters," reveals Abrams as an admiring explorer of Steven Spielberg. Abrams grew up worshipping Spielberg's films, like millions of others, including myself, in a similar fashion to how Spielberg grew up worshipping old cliffhanger serials. But Spielberg, when he did his homage to those films, brought his own almost preternatural sense of innocence, his unparalleled ability to entertain, and he made "Raiders of the Lost Ark." J.J. Abrams, a far more self-aware citizen of the movie jungle, isn't Steven Spielberg, no matter how much he wants to be. "Super 8" is a simulacrum of a Steven Spielberg movie, but it doesn't have the heart, the discipline, the inspiration of the great Spielberg movies. It's what happens if you make a Spielberg movie with no Spielberg.

2. Oh, it's all here, the mop-topped boy left alone by adults to fend for himself (from Henry Thomas to effective newcomer Joey Courtney), the daddy issues, the "Goonies"-esque Kids Out On An Adventure, the benevolent, misunderstood alien presence who is too sensitive for Man to understand, the we-must-all-stand-together-or-we-will-stand-alone community ethos, that sense that these supernatural events are happening in a real, grounded place. "Super 8" plays like a checklist of Spielberg tropes, but what makes Spielberg Spielberg is that he, himself, is one of those too-sensitive-for-this-world kids. This drives you nuts sometimes -- I'll confess his obsession with childhood sometimes borders on the creepy -- but it is undeniably huge-hearted and painfully sincere. I'm not sure Abrams is capable of that sort of sincerity. I'm not sure anyone is.

3. "Super 8" is another film that knows the words but not the music. Set in 1979, prime Spielberg real estate, we met Joe and his friends (including Alice, played by Elle Fanning, who is so natural and open-faced an actress that it's almost terrifying; you want to protect her from the real scary world that awaits her), who are making a movie when they witness a horrific train crash, started, improbably, by their biology teacher. Something escapes from the train, and before we know it, the military is involved, Joe's Deputy dad (Kyle Chandler) is trying to find out what's happening and, oddly, all the dogs in town are disappearing. What's going on? This is all put together nicely -- Abrams is nothing if not sleek and efficient -- but it lacks anything that might give it any real soul. Abrams has a technocrat's spirit; he is trying to calculate what it might mean to see the events of "Super 8" through a child's eyes, but he doesn't actually know. It feels like we're watching home movies of these kids, rather than seeing them experience all of this. "Super 8" was intended as a mashup of Spielberg's old-school '80s sentiment and today's "Cloverfield" high-tech, hip monster movies. But Abrams can't reconstruct that sentiment. He just apes it.

4. And, to be frank, I'm not sure he gets the "Cloverfield" parts right either. (Ironically, Abrams' childhood pal Matt Reeves is better at the '80s childhood innocence thing too, as witnessed in his far superior "Let Me In.") The big Mystery Conspiracy of the film is not difficult to guess, and the scenes with the Air Force corporal played by Noah Emmerich are so telegraphed as to be comical. (Emmerich needs a little mustache he can twirl.) And for a project that Abrams has supposedly been working on for so long, the plotting is shockingly shoddy. Characters have a tendency to show up exactly where they're needed to move the plot along, and the "monster" seems to know whom precisely to target at specific times so that the tension will be appropriately ratcheted up. While we're at it, without getting into spoilers here ... as much as one appreciates Abrams' further homage to Spielberg by taking his sweet time to reveal the mysterious creature at "Super 8"'s center, giving us just a tiny bit better of a look each appearance, if you're going to build up that much anticipation, the "monster" better be worth the wait. When the shark in "Jaws" was finally eyed in all its glory, it was terrifying and awesome. The "monster" in this movie? Let's just say it is no shark.

5. This is all a little harsher to "Super 8" than I mean to be; I know I should probably be grading on a curve, giving credit to a movie with generous spirit and genuine love for some classic films that deserve to be remembered. (And stacked right in between "The Hangover Part II" and "Transformers Part III," no less.) And Abrams does some good things here, not the least of which the casting of the kids, all of whom are believable and likable and relatable. But it is missing the key component for all this to work, leaving a gaping hole at its center: that sense of magic, of wonder, of awe that made the films that inspired this one so great and makes this one feel so empty. You need to truly, even naiviely believe to make a movie like "Super 8" soar, and Abrams doesn't, can't. He loves those old movies, but he can't make one. It's no sin: There's only one Spielberg. "Super 8" wants to be Spielberg, needs to be Spielberg, begs to be Spielberg. But this ain't Spielberg.

Grade: C