No film this year opens more promisingly and ends more dismally than J.J. Abrams’ Super 8. Promising not only because the first shot—a somber tracking shot as the “Days without an accident” sign is changed to “one” at a late 1970s Ohio steel mill—is deft cinematic shorthand (William Wellman might have kicked off one of his drum-tight 1932 Warners tracts the exact same way), but also because the shot is treated as an image, composed with movement and loaded with info. As with the police sirens that pierce through the darkness in the first shot of Matt Reeves’ Let Me In, it suggests a TV director’s bracing discovery of the screen as a canvas rather than as a perfunctory block that’s connected to other blocks. And dismal because, without an expressive directorial vision to match it, the discovery is squandered on worshipful facsimiles of producer Steven Spielberg’s earlier successes and a climax that aims for catharsis but offers just another variation of the CGI Meh-zilla from Reeves’ Cloverfield.
Before he’s nudged and reminded that, hey, this is supposed to be the jumbo sci-fi hit everyone is waiting for, Abrams works affectingly small and intimate with his young cast, whipping up flurries of garrulous energy (the funniest of them centered on the shooting of a zero-budget zombie flick and motored by a middle-school horror auteur played by Riley Griffiths) only to ground them with pools of tender stillness (as when Elle Fanning, playing the backyard production’s unexpectedly adroit leading lady, jokingly mimes ghoulish lurching for smitten makeup artist Joel Courtney). Like Abrams and Spielberg, the kids see film and life through the filter of other movies, and when a train explodes before their eyes, the wreckage is spectacle first and foremost, incendiary yet inoffensive (the most bleeding comes from the protagonist’s amateur F/X kit), the kind of “production values” (a term gleefully repeated by Griffiths’ would-be Romero) they could only dream about. An attempt to re-create and surpass the locomotive crash from The Greatest Show on Earth (famously, Spielberg’s earliest cinematic recollection), the sequence is also the moment Super 8 slides from a memory work like Adventureland that’s organically infused with personal mementos from movies like Close Encounters of the Third Kind or E.T., to boneless, slavish mimicry of them. Messed-up fathers, a creature revealed one tentacle at a time, cinematography that apes Vilmos Zsigmond’s effulgence, a score that parrots John Williams’ thunder, shot after shot of awestruck faces: Amblin’s Far from Heaven, a painted shell.
Blame Steven? Super 8 is not merely Spielberg’s tribute to himself, engineered by a longtime adulator and given the official okey-dokey via his producer stamp, but also a tribute to the most superficial aspects of his work. There’s slam-bang pyrotechnics and heated sentiment, sure, but watch the films again and see allegories of vision, complex sessions of symbol-deciphering, and the human psyche perpetually faced with the unknown—Spielberg the artist, Spielberg the brand name, à la Hitchcock or Warhol. Just as Kubrick loomed over him in A.I., he looms over his protégées then and now, with varying results: Tobe Hooper in Poltergeist gets steamrolled into anonymity, Robert Zemeckis in Back to the Future finds the oddball simpatico note and blooms, Joe Dante in Gremlins executes a subversive inside-job. When Dante has one of his mischievous puppets wipe its nose on the curtains of an impeccably Spielbergian suburban home, the collision of Walt Disney and Chuck Jones is fabulously crystallized; when Abrams caps his reverent evocation with a rerun of cosmic fireworks from blockbusters past, it’s clear that the biggest thing he’s learned from his mentor is to never tackle the tensions that arise in a film when you can tranquilize them with a dazzling lightshow.