Eric Plaag and Matt Smith

A SplitScreen Discussion: Super 8

In Film, Film Theory, Reviews on June 13, 2011 at 12:53 pm

By Eric Plaag and Matt Smith

Opening this past weekend was Super 8, the highly anticipated summer blockbuster from writer/director J. J. Abrams (Star Trek) and producer Steven Spielberg. The film centers on Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney), a young teen whose mother has just been killed in a mill accident in their small town of Lillian, Ohio. It is the summer of 1979, and Joe’s friend Charles (Riley Griffiths) is a budding filmmaker convinced that his forthcoming homemade zombie flick The Case could take top prize at the Cleveland International Film Festival. To enhance his chances, Charles persuades Alice (Elle Fanning), a young girl way out of their league, to join their production as the female love interest and necessary underage driver who will get the entire film crew out to the train station for a “production value” night scene. Unexpectedly, the teens become the sole surviving witnesses to an explosive train derailment with mysterious origins, resulting in the scattering of thousands of Rubik’s Cube-like devices amidst the carnage. The entire catastrophe, as well as a deep, dark government secret dating to 1958, is caught on Charles’s Super 8 camera. As shadowy military forces move in and seal the town, Joe and his friends scramble to keep making their movie, until they realize that something else was on that train that night and escaped, something that is making animals and people disappear from Lillian at an alarming rate.

This time out, Matt and Eric decided to review Super 8 by chatting about it and grilling each other on the peculiarities of Abrams’s production. They both saw the film on Saturday afternoon—Eric with his thirteen-year-old son in Massachusetts, Matt somewhere in Columbia—and they have not previously discussed their responses to the film. For the record, Eric also just so happens to have been about Joe’s age in 1979.

ERIC: Some of the best sequences of this film are those that focus on the meticulous lengths to which Charles and Joe (as well as their braces-afflicted explosives expert friend Carey—played perfectly by Ryan Lee) will go in the interest of creating “realism” on a shoestring budget. In one of their exchanges, Charles explains that he has cast Alice as the love interest because we need such a character in order to care enough about the star to want him to succeed. This kind of reflexive self-analysis—which occurs several times in Super 8 and seems to culminate in the completed version of The Case that airs during the closing credits—begs an important question about Super 8: Are Alice and the accompanying revelations involving the death of Joe’s mother in this film strictly because Abrams needs a device to make us care about Joe, a character who is otherwise not all that compelling? How do you feel about a story that so unapologetically shows off its scaffolding, and does this self-awareness work here?

MATT: I definitely think that the most interesting parts of this movie are the interactions with the kids as they attempt to make their movie, and one of the great pleasures in regard to the self-aware nature of Super 8 is being able to pick up on the many in-jokes (a favorite of mine is when Joe’s dad tells him he’s not a fan of his friend Carey, who keeps setting things on fire…har har) and the ways the film provides commentary on just how movies influence not only our knowledge of watching movies but the perceived behaviors we act out in reality based on that knowledge. I’m not quite sure to what extent this works for the film because I think it loses sight of this self-reflexivity somewhere around the final third, when the military/alien creature plot starts to pick up steam. There are certainly large portions of the film that feel forced (Joe’s relationship with his father comes to mind), but to what extent is this Abrams’s own response to the task of invoking vintage Spielberg at every possible turn? I don’t know about you, but I don’t share a large Spielberg/Zemeckis nostalgia from the era in question. Much as I love those movies, I grew up on monster flicks, and Spielberg/New World Pictures cohort Joe Dante gets my vote for the best Spielberg-associated filmmaker from that time period. As someone who was that age in 1979, how do you feel about this nostalgia and the film aesthetics formed by that particular group, and how do you think this plays into how you feel about Super 8?

ERIC: For me, there are really two kinds of nostalgia at work in this film. As a child of that era, I took great delight in some of Super 8’s nods to popular culture of that specific year, such as Carey’s rediscovery of and re-immersion into his confiscated handheld electronic football game at school, playing with it even though the world is hanging in the balance and awaiting action from him that actually matters. We took those games everywhere with us, long before any of you young whippersnappers had iPods, cell phones, or even GameBoys to distract you from the real world. Likewise, a passing reference to Three Mile Island (on a news broadcast) nicely captures the different kind of nuclear threat that most of us kids worried about then. It wasn’t until a couple of years later, with the telecast of The Day After, that any of us youngins started worrying about thermonuclear war in the manner made popular by Wargames.

That said, this nostalgia for popular culture and contemporary events gets in the way of the film, too, sometimes. “My Sharona,” that classic song from The Knack, is featured prominently in the story and on the soundtrack, but this story is clearly set in June 1979, simultaneous to or even just before the week when this song was first released. It wouldn’t burn up the charts until late summer/early fall, so I’m not sure why the zombie movie crew is singing it as if it’s the coolest thing since “Le Freak.” Likewise, the timeline for the Three Mile Island stuff is really wonky, too. I know this may seem like quibbling, but if you want to play this type of nostalgia game with your audience—and Abrams and the studio execs have acknowledged they are targeting middle-aged men, not teens, with this film—then you have to be dead on about it, not loosey-goosey. I remember exactly when I first heard “My Sharona” with friends, and it sure wasn’t in June. But in Abrams’s creative universe, this kind of precision doesn’t seem to matter. The cultural references are just window dressing.

In a similar way, the Spielbergian nostalgia often seems inexact. The closing moments of Super 8 feel much more E.T.-ish to me than Close Encounters of the Third Kind, a film whose specifics and message have been largely forgotten by our culture by comparison with its higher grossing cousin. (My son, in fact, has seen E.T. numerous times through other enablers besides me, but he did not know anything about Close Encounters until this weekend.) At its core, though, the first two thirds of Super 8 carry all of the hallmarks of Close Encounters—the inexplicable events, the disbelief of family, the dark overtones of social isolation, even the electrical line worker and that visually impressive train crash. I’ve always seen these two films as quite distinct from one another, both in terms of tone and substance. Super 8 wants to meld them, apparently forgetting that the Spielberg/Zemeckis aesthetic is an ‘80s byproduct, not a late ‘70s creation, and I don’t think that mixing them works very well. Instead of the patient scientists of Close Encounters, we get the inept and corrupt military intelligence that is nearly a cliché in Spielberg’s later responses to the Reagan era. Some might say I’m quibbling here, too, but there is a hell of a lot of difference between 1977 Spielberg and his 1982 zaniness-infused doppelganger. Unfortunately, if Abrams had made a film that wasn’t so drunk on its own warped sense of nostalgia, he’d have had to have titled it Betamax, and that wouldn’t have been nearly as cool. The fact that Abrams tries to bridge this chasm by so shamelessly borrowing from both sensibilities in a manner that feels like the worst kind of homage—sampling rather than respectful nod—only accentuates my preconception about Abrams that he wouldn’t know an original story, or a proper third act, for that matter, even if it strung him up by his heels and threatened to eat him as a snack.

So, that leaves us with the Abrams aesthetic, whatever that is supposed to be. Lens flares that hint at masturbatory self-indulgence? A ridiculously convoluted third act plot that forces the characters to pass one another not just once, not just twice, but three times on the way in and out of an abandoned town, apparently oblivious to all this running around that the others are doing? Or maybe that very strange moment near the end of the film when Joe’s only recourse to save Alice is to strike her full force in the face? All of these rather pointed components baffled me, and I’m curious as to what you think they reveal about Abrams.

MATT: I think it’s interesting that you bring up the aesthetics of Abrams’ filmmaking, because I’m not entirely sure what they are. He’s very clearly influenced visually by Close Encounters-era Spielberg in almost all of the visual choices he makes, but the one distinct thing he carries from project to project are those lens flares, which honestly are more fetishized in Super 8 than female feet in a Tarantino flick. The flares don’t actually bother me in either Mission Impossible III or Star Trek, but here they seem to be a distraction from image clarity, and they linger on screen long after any possibly light source is visible (digitally inserted, maybe?), and it does become tiresome. I brought up Joe Dante earlier, who was close friends with Spielberg in the ’80s and directed several Spielberg-produced movies, notably Gremlins. This is a man who got monster movies and teenage chills, and he never pandered to the audience. Dante is a true movie brat and it shows in his work, ranging from the halcyon days at New World Pictures as the trailer editor and through to his ’90s output, which included the underrated Small Soldiers. What makes Dante’s B-pictures work within the context of working with Spielberg is that these two men had such divergent interests and dissimilar early careers, but both absolutely loved movies from when they were kids.

Abrams, it should be no surprise, got hired at 15 to restore and maintain Spielberg’s 8mm film work by the man himself, and basically learned everything he knows by observing him throughout the past two decades. Abrams loves Spielberg’s movies from when he was a kid. As interesting as the guy is as an idea man, his ideas here fall apart because he’s so beholden to some sort of idealized and impossible project of adolescent Spielberg nostalgia. But it falls apart because, as you mentioned, he tries to marry two disparate tones and styles into a single entity, and the result is a movie that is really kind of terrific until its final act, at which point you can feel how involved Abrams is at making sure one thing happens after another, no matter how illogical or contrived.

But the film has a huge saving grace in its child actors, all of whom turn in some really classic performances that nail the tone and style of the films that inspired Abrams, chiefly The Goonies and the young protagonists of E.T. Elle Fanning in particular is following in her older sister’s footsteps as a great performer (it should be noted that Spielberg used Dakota in War of the Worlds), and she is simply terrific here. Every time she’s on screen the movie picks up, and even though the framework is exposed at the moment she’s introduced as a love interest, she remains one of the brightest points in a film that contains plenty of worthy acting. Ditto Riley Griffiths as Charles, who makes his debut here, and Ryan Lee’s Carey. I really hope these kids never get roped into contracts with Disney and Nickelodeon.

Now, I know this all makes me sound like I absolutely hated Super 8, but that’s not the truth. It’s not a bad movie, only one that isn’t entirely successful. I love – LOVE – the introductory scenes, the production of the kids’ film, the ways in which we get to really live and breathe in their reality, no matter how false moments may ring to someone who was their age in 1979. Let it be said that Abrams truly does have a gift with crafting characters and making us care about them. And there are a lot of small character flourishes here and there, like the posters in Charles’s room, and Joe’s obsession with monster make-up, and yes, Carey’s abundance of fireworks. These look and feel and sound like real people involved in a version of what an idealized reality may have been like. I simply don’t like that the movie derails in much the same fashion as the train, and a lot of it has to do with the introduction of the “monster” itself, which certainly falls more into the menacing category of Cloverfield than the friendly explorer mode of E.T. or the aliens in Close Encounters. It even looks similar, maybe in an attempt to provide some sort of cohesion to the Abrams sci-fi universe? I don’t think this would have been so horrible if not for two things: 1) The alien apparently eats people and certainly kills them, and 2) it just lets the kids go after they explain they understand it just wants to leave Earth, which they know because they were told so, but also because it creates some sort of telepathic bond by touch. The biggest question then becomes, why does it kill anyone? Why can’t it just communicate that it just wants to leave? It would be easier to swallow some of the military stuff if we were given a clear picture as to whether or not we are supposed to like or be fearful of this alien. Or even a reason behind its sticking around and terrorizing this small town at all if all it needed to do was get its cubes back from the military and rebuild its ship. What are we to make of this?

ERIC: I couldn’t agree with you more about the performances of the kids, especially the three actors you mention. There are many moments that are just a lot of fun between these characters, evoking exactly that kind of boisterous banter that made The Goonies so crisp. Likewise, I don’t want to give the impression that I hated Super 8 either. In fact, my annoyance with many of the issues we’ve discussed here is that so much is right about the first half of this film that I want to shake Abrams by his lens mounts for screwing up the rest of it.

There was early speculation that Super 8 was intended to be a prequel to Cloverfield, a claim that Abrams dismissed immediately during production. But the familiar appearance of that alien and the questions you raise about its motivations underscore the dilemma Abrams faced in going down this path: If he mingles his own tools with the iconography of his mentor’s universe, then the result is more meta art than art, right? Still, to Abrams’s credit, he does try to use the subplot involving Alice’s middle school science teacher, Dr. Woodward, and the military commander to reconcile some of these problems. In that long sequence involving Woodward’s cassette tape, Abrams gives us 1950s-style monster flick footage to accompany Woodward’s explanation that the only way the creature could make himself heard was by wreaking havoc or by essentially forcing itself psychologically upon the will of those who exploit it. When I think of the heavy-handedness of those alien and monster movies of the early Cold War era, as well as Spielberg’s own ham-fisted cautionary tales about the issues of his own period, it makes me wonder if Abrams wants us to read some great moral allegory out of this monster’s circumstances. Does the lost alien become a monster because the military has imprisoned him, tortured him, kept him in solitary confinement, and deprived him of any connection to his culture? Woodward insists this is the case, and I suspect Abrams would say that it kills because it needs to eat, and it can’t just ask to leave because it tried that (through Woodward), but the military either didn’t listen, didn’t care, or both. Insert conclusion about Guantanamo detainees, rendition, and the War on Terror here.

The main problem with mingling all of these time periods and their associated BMDs (big moral dilemmas) with a celebration of the storytelling on which Abrams was reared and mentored is that it results in a huge, convoluted mess from which it is nearly impossible to take any clear message, other than perhaps the clichés referenced earlier. I couldn’t help but find a strange parallel between the military’s bungled efforts to attack the monster in downtown Lillian (“All of our weapons are going haywire! We can’t control where they’re firing!” or some such nonsense) and Abrams’s efforts to wrap up this story. The resolution of the secondary plot line involving Joe’s and Alice’s fathers is equally puzzling. This seems an awfully long emotional trek to make just to arrive at, “It was an accident, so it’s okay,” especially since there was never any real blame for either of them to parcel out in the first place. To Abrams’s credit, though, at least this conclusion parallels the resolution produced by Joe’s forced communion with the monster, regardless of how preposterous it might actually be.

MATT: The lack of a real explanation of that factory accident may be at the heart of some of this forced emotionality as well. We learn exactly two facts about the incident that caused Joe’s mother’s death: she was crushed by a beam, and Alice’s father, Louis, skipped work because he was drunk at home that day. Other than that, there’s no real explanation as to why Jackson, Joe’s dad, throws him out of the house at the beginning of the movie, or any other reason they should reconcile in that car ride other than a forced “for our kids” moment that attempts to wrap everything up in a little bow. And I think that gets to the heart of the problem.

Abrams seems intent on wrapping up Super 8 in a cohesive and fully finished package, with no loose ends tattering about. And I think that takes some of the oomph out of the movie. This is certainly a weakness Spielberg has with some of his endings, particularly the forced happiness of seeing the whole family reunited at the end of War of the Worlds, for one. No one died? What was the real consequence, then? And would it have been so bad to leave the audience with some questions? The plot isn’t bad, it’s just too much and incongruent, and that’s what makes Super 8 so maddening to me, and to you, too. It starts out flat out terrific, keeping me on the edge of the seat, but ultimately loses its way by trying to not lose itself. A movie that gets so close to greatness only to end up in utter mediocrity is personally more offensive than a truly bad movie. The ultimate gauge for me as to how I feel about a film is to ask myself if I’d watch it again. At this point, maybe, but more to understand where exactly this thing went wrong than to attempt to appreciate it more.

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  1. I think the fact you guys brought up “War of the Worlds” I think makes me like “Super 8” more. The Tom Cruise-led vehicle was so completely forgettable, and the ending so anti-climactic, that I didn’t even *think* about it while watching this movie. I also agree the acting by the group of friends is what carries the movie, and I’m disappointed that Kyle Chandler can’t seem to grow as an actor in the roles he accepts. I seriously thought for a moment I was watching a seen between Bella and Cop Swan when I saw a seen with Chandler and his son.

    My viewing buddy and I both thought the monster looked *extremely* like the “Cloverfield” monster. And he actually brought up the monster from “Pan’s Labyrinth” which I have not seen. I, too, was extremely surprised at how casually the monster decided not to kill those children, but I do like Eric’s explanation that it had no other way to communicate other than to destroy things. Also, the ship was completed moments after that incident in the cave, so I think he was more thinking, “Okay, I just need to get the crap out of here. Screw this town. I have the parts I need and a snack. I just want to go home.” I think it would have been slightly better plot device if the main character had some sort of connection with Woodward, and the alien sensed “Woodward’s presence” in him. I was extremely disappointed that they had that Woodward death scene saying “I’ll be watching too,” but then they don’t really follow up on that.

    However, as a summer movie, it was quite well done. It ha s all the elements of a good popcorn flick, but I think because we expect a lot of Abrams that this was a bit of a letdown. Nice review, guys.

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