Is imitation the sincerest form of flattery when the “flatteree” is actually executive producing the imitation?
That’s the question that kept popping into my head as I watched the Steven Spielberg-produced tribute to early Steven Spielberg movies, Super 8.
Directed by J.J. Abrams (who is credited with breathing new life into the cobwebby Star Trek franchise with the sexy 2009 reboot), Super 8 is as much a big tease as the spare, elusive commercials have been up to this point, but the elements are all borrowed from any number of 1980s Spielberg productions. The basic story is more formula than plotline: The Goonies find themselves in a single-town War of the Worlds against a creature who, like Jaws, snatches victims stealthily in the darkness but who, in the end, just wants to go back home like E.T.
The look and feel of vintage Spielberg aren’t exactly pitch-perfect. Abrams’ now-trademark lens flares here almost seem to be trying to paper over the fact that he’s nowhere near as seamless a craftsman as Spielberg, the pacing of his movie is maddeningly uneven and, worst of all, he fails to land most of the intended emotional punches.
The apparatus is all there — the lead character is a moon-eyed young boy who just recently lost his mother in a freak accident and is wrestling with the stirrings of a first crush — but Abrams seems more interested in paying homage to his own nostalgia than he does creating a work that will, someday, be worth of a new generation’s own nostalgia.
Part of the problem, I think, is that the object of affection isn’t exactly out of fashion these days. Spielberg’s brand of populism is still alive and well, just in the most vulgarized forms. In contrast to the grindhouse movies Quentin Tarantino restages, the language of Spielberg’s cinema is apparent in almost every mainstream adventure movie of the last few decades. That may be partially to account for the fact that most of the 1979-set movie’s period references aren’t delivered with the customary dose of snark. Like the movie’s saying Super 8‘s past is simply not that distant.
Add to this the fact that the director himself is still kicking around and doing some of the most vital work of his career (OK, and also Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull), and you’re left wondering, why bother?
That all said, there’s something sweet about how the group of pint-sized moviemakers keep filming their cheap zombie movies, the whole time using the mayhem afflicting their burg as a “mint” backdrop. “Production value,” the pint-sized Hitchcock ringleader keeps insisting.
He could be a stand in for Abrams himself, missing the Devils Tower for the pile of potatoes, dealing nostalgia instead of submitting to it. Super 8 is a work made out of respect, but unfortunately not one made from the heart.