One way to know that you've made it as a groundbreaking, influential artist is for people to wonder who's going to be the next you. The music industry at different times has gone looking for the next Bob Dylan or the next Nirvana, and TV execs would love to find the next "American Idol." Back in 2000, Esquire polled film critics about who was going to be the next Martin Scorsese, but in terms of studio blockbusters the film business is always seeking the next Steven Spielberg. People such as Michael Bay or Jon Favreau would probably love that title, but the guy in 2011 who most nakedly reached for the crown was writer-director J.J. Abrams with "Super 8." He didn't quite get there, but he shouldn't feel too bad: I don't think anyone can.
"Super 8," which is out on DVD today, is set in Ohio in 1979, but it's probably more accurate to say it's set in the world of the movies Spielberg directed or produced in the late '70s and early '80s. Joel Courtney played the Elliott-like (from "E.T.") young boy who gets into all kinds of trouble with his school chums after they realize that an escaped alien is hiding out from the U.S. government in their small town.
That's what the movie's "about," but anyone who has a fondness for "The Goonies" or "E.T." or "Close Encounters" will recognize that "Super 8" mostly exists to say, "Hey, weren't Spielberg's old movies really, really special?" Much like kids' movies that are packed with pop-culture references, much of "Super 8's" appeal comes from the audience's familiarity with what's being recalled -- specifically, Spielberg's gee-whiz excitement for a new era in event pictures that emphasized roller-coaster excitement and cutting-edge special effects. You're invited to hook into the nostalgic pleasure and go on the ride.
Unfortunately, "Super 8" failed -- partly because of its own merits, and partly because the period it's trying to evoke feels so far out of reach. It's worth noting that while "Super 8" is a pretty familiar story -- neither the alien conspiracy nor the coming-of-age aspects are very fresh -- it was the one major summer blockbuster that was written and directed by the same person. That doesn't quite make Abrams an auteur, but it does suggest that during this past summer movie season he was one of the few guys who made a film that was truly close to his heart. Nevertheless, "Super 8" seemed quaint by trying to hark back to a more innocent event-movie period. It's not that such a combination is impossible, but "Super 8's" state-of-the-art effects paired with a sweet, simple story made it feel the opposite of timeless. Instead, "Super 8" straddled two worlds uncomfortably, Abrams wanting to bring early-Spielberg into the present by making a period film. And in the process, he made his least accomplished movie. With "Super 8," Abrams tried to be the next Spielberg so badly he ended up being nothing at all.