Hollywood Grind: Will the Real J.J. Abrams Please Stand Up?
Super 8 demonstrates that J.J. Abrams has not yet escaped the gravitational pull of his creative inspirations. If Abrams has something more original and/or more personal to say, it's time for him to stop playing his cards so close to his vest. It's only the third feature film he's directed, but he's about to turn 45, and the clock is ticking.
To be fair, Super 8 is a lot of good-spirited fun to watch, the kind of blissfully light summer entertainment that so many of us remember fondly from our youth. Abrams, who wrote and directed, borrows freely from the beloved and highly influential Steven Spielberg, who gave his blessing by serving as one of the film's producers. Depending on your age, the obvious homages begin with E.T. The Extra Terrestrial and then move either forward into the 80s (Explorers, The Goonies) or backwards into the 70s (Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind), with any number of influences from other cinematic eras acknowledged either explicitly or implicitly.
Now, there's certainly nothing wrong with making an affectionate tribute to a favorite filmmaker, especially one that's character-based, dynamically-paced, and well-crafted. For a reality check, however, compare the third feature directorial effort of Spielberg (Close Encounters of the Third Kind) or Joe Dante (The Howling). Criticize those movies all you want, and feel free to point out all the influences that are present. But both reflect recognizably different directors at work, feeding off their own individual backgrounds and ambitions. Watching Super 8, good as it is, feels like a more anonymous experience. What, exactly, is Abrams trying to say?
Maybe he doesn't want to say anything, beyond providing a touchstone to shared memories. (We'll leave aside certain wince-inducing moments in the third act.) Invoking nostalgia for its own sake is a time-honored tradition, but it's proven to be quicksand for Spielberg ("Kick the Can," his episode in Twilight Zone: The Movie), while Dante, who has played more often with the ideals of childhood and adolescence, transcends the trappings to comment on larger issues ("It's a Good Life," his episode in Twilight Zone: The Movie, as well as the aforementioned Explorers and, later, Small Soldiers).
Spielberg had several years of experience as a television director; Duel is terrific and stands on its own merits as thriller, made for TV or not. Dante had done his share of yeoman service as an editor for Roger Corman. Abrams, of course, didn't just fall off a turnip truck and into the director's chair of a big-budget movie. He and his friend Matt Reeves made movies with a Super 8 camera, which led to an article in the Los Angeles Times, which led to the teens being hired by Spielberg to repair Super 8 movies the director had made in his youth, which led to Abrams' first credit as a composer at the age of 16. (All that is nicely detailed in a recent interview with The Washington Post.)
Later, Abrams became a screenwriter, with credits for 1990's Taking Care of Business (he was still just 24) and the higher-profile Regarding Henry and Dying Young the following year. In the late 90s he got into television with Felicity and then Alias. He got his feet wet as a director on those shows; Abrams says that Tom Cruise hired him for Mission: Impossible III based on Alias, which makes sense. But Abrams really showed what he could do with the pilot for Lost, a very good, spooky and atmospheric start to the series.
M:I 3 was a crisp, efficient thriller, if somewhat anonymous. Writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman became involved with the Star Trek reboot, and Abrams came on board, initially as a producer. He ended up directing as well, and Star Trek was a grand success, pleasing (for the most part) critics, mainstream audiences, and die-hard Trekkies.
Shortly before the release of Star Trek, a writer for The New York Times commented on the "conscious effort to inscribe this 'Trek' in the storytelling traditions popularized by Joseph Campbell, in which heroes must suffer loss and abandonment before they rise to the occasion. The filmmakers admit that this is a deliberate homage to their favorite films, like 'Superman,' 'Star Wars' and 'The Godfather Part II': epic movies that, by the way, did pretty well at the box office." [Italics added.] It's not a direct quote, but that statement may provide a clue to Abrams' intention with Super 8.
Flying solo as a screenwriter, just like Spielberg with Close Encounters (though others reportedly contributed to Spielberg's script), Abrams returns to his youth in Super 8. It's a movie version of his life, of course; he grew up in Los Angeles, but the movie is set in the fictional small town of Lillian, Ohio, in 1979.
Joe Lamb, his presumed alter-ego, is an only child who has lost his mother in a steel factory accident. Joe is best friends with Charles, a budding director; together with three other friends, they set off to shoot a scene for their latest zombie opus at a lonely abandoned train station in the middle of nowhere. Charles has recruited Alice (Elle Fanning, who is terrific), a slightly older girl, to drive the gang to the location and act in the movie. Alice, spirited, angry, and sad, throws an electric, pubescent erotic charge into the proceedings. Filming commences. When a freight train unexpectedly looms on the horizon, the excited teens scramble into action. The train crashes, something escapes, and strange things start happening in town.
The plot develops in a manner that will be quite familiar to those who have already seen the films mentioned above. What's missing is the broad streak of originality that made those early films by Spielberg and Dante more compelling than mere cinematic mix-tapes: the insane mess that Richard Dreyfus makes in his home, driving away his family (his wife! his kids!); the insane fright of watching a man transform into a werewolf in front of your eyes.
Super 8 is warm and inviting and easy to recommend. Beyond that, it feels that Abrams is tracking a course to be a kind of family-friendly Quentin Tarantino Lite, paying homage to the old masters without adding much of his own soul.
Maybe it's asking too much. Abrams has the ideas and he has the skills; it remains to be seen whether he can pull a rabbit out of his hat and actually surprise us.