This Week on DVD: ‘Super 8′ and the Search for the Next Spielberg
"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.