The Magazine

Alien Corn

A Steven Spielberg-produced tribute to Spielberg could have used Spielberg.

Jul 4, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 40 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
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Super 8

Super 8 kid

Paramount Pictures

Directed by J. J. Abrams

Super 8 is a great marketing idea for a movie—an evocation of the child-centric science-fiction films of the 1980s, the ones primarily directed or produced by Steven Spielberg. Indeed, Super 8 is itself produced by Spielberg in an act of self-homage that makes Norman Mailer’s Advertisements for Myself look like the Talmudic tractate on modesty. Set in an immaculately re-created and resolutely lower-middle-class pre-Reagan America, Super 8 throws E.T., The Goonies, Poltergeist, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind into a pop-culture blender.

For me, the most interesting aspect of Super 8 has little to do with what’s actually on screen. And it’s this: Thinking about Super 8’s primary inspiration, I was stunned to realize that E.T. was released nearly three decades ago. When I was a teenager in the 1970s, movies made in or about the 1940s seemed like bulletins from a different century, depicting as they did an America before television, the crime spiral, Vietnam, urban rioting, feminism, the civil rights movement, and on-screen cursing and nudity.

But surely to a teenager today, the 1979 portrayed in Super 8 (or the world he sees when he watches E.T.) doesn’t really seem all that long ago. People in Super 8 watch television, and little boys film movies they dream of taking to film festivals. Today there’s cable, and movies can be made on iPhones and posted to YouTube, but such change is evolutionary, not revolutionary.

Indeed, maybe the only real cultural difference I can see is the depiction of the U.S. military. Super 8 is true to the movies it evokes with its hostile depiction of the U.S. military as a bunch of bullying totalitarian torturers (so common was it, in fact, that it even infected the comic fantasy of Splash, when Daryl Hannah’s mermaid is captured by evil government scientists). But while such antimilitary attitudes are certainly prevalent in today’s nonfiction media, they will come as a bit of a transgressive shock to young people who were toddlers during 9/11 and haven’t been raised on a diet of Michael Moore and
Harpers magazine.

That antimilitary bias is just about the only aspect of Super 8 that isn’t entirely routine. The idea for the movie might have been inspired, but between the idea and the reality falls the shadow, and the shadow’s name is J. J. Abrams, who wrote and directed Super 8. Abrams was the creative force behind the television series Felicity and Alias, the producer of Lost, and the director of Mission: Impossible III and the recent reboot of Star Trek (in which Kirk and Spock and the whole crew were in their early twenties). What all these entertainments have in common with each other, and with Super 8, is just how wonderfully they begin and how amazingly unsatisfying they end up being as they at last stumble to the final blackout.

The collected works of J. J. Abrams are, as the star pitcher said of the gifts of the catcher in Mark Harris’s novel Bang the Drum Slowly, “a million dollars of promise worth two cents on delivery.” Everything is good about them at the start: the way they look, the way they establish their characters in familiar and amusing milieux, the way they drop hints about excitement and thrills and complications to come. But then the plot actually has to begin, and build on itself, and make sense, and tie up loose ends. Once he must move beyond the trappings, Abrams comes undone.

In Super 8, an alien escapes from a sealed train car. It then does all sorts of things. But why it does these things is never really explained to us, and we are never given a reason to care about those who suffer from what the alien does, or for the kids we’re watching. I gather that, as was true with Lost, there are websites set up by the producers of Super 8 that help illuminate aspects of the mystifying plot, featuring short films that will presumably also show up on the DVD. But we really shouldn’t have to go to a website to find out what the movie ought to tell us itself.

And when Abrams tries to strum the heartstrings, Spielberg-style, he just doesn’t have the gift for it. The epiphany of the movie comes near its final scene, when a motherless boy explains what’s in his heart by saying, “Bad things happen.” I think we’re supposed to cry—at least that’s what the exceptional musical score by Michael Giacchino, who may be establishing himself as the greatest composer the movies have ever seen, is instructing us to do.

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