Lost in Spielberg

In 20 years, some of these kids will be great actors, the others will be total freakshows.

In 20 years, some of these kids will be great actors, the others will be total freakshows.

Rated 2.0

I am all about ’70s Spielberg films. Jaws remains my favorite movie of all time and will probably hold that title until I’m on my deathbed making final movie requests. Close Encounters is right up there with the best science fiction films.

As for writer-director J.J. Abrams … I’m a big fan. Lost was an incredible TV show that actually got my busy ass to stop and watch on a weekly basis, and the Star Trek reboot is one of the more watchable films of the last five years. I watch it repeatedly—a pathetic behavioral trait of mine.

So when I got wind that Abrams’ latest directorial effort, Super 8, was his homage to Spielberg, who actually serves as a producer on the film, I got excited. And, as with his Cloverfield production, Abrams kept his film cloaked in secrecy until its release date. I was psyched.

Super 8 is less an homage than a complete rip-off and sad impersonation of the real thing. Abrams, with Spielberg’s blessing, apes such Spielberg productions as Close Encounters, Jaws, E.T. and especially The Goonies to a point that becomes distracting.

Abrams wants his movie to be multiple Spielberg movies in one crazy package. He wants it to be a father-son parable, a coming-of-age romance, a ’70s nostalgia trip, a mystery and, oh yeah, an alien movie. He even copies John Williams’ French horn-laden E.T. soundtrack, and populates his film with plucky kids—none of which have the magical appeal of a Henry Thomas or even a C. Thomas Howell.

The film focuses on a group of kids who like to shoot super 8 films about zombies. One night, while out working on their production near a train station, a train is derailed, and it’s a train with something nasty on board. That something escapes into the town and basically hides like Bruce the shark in Jaws. You don’t really see its physical form until late in the movie.

I won’t say much about the alien. I will only say that it looks like it came from the same family as the Cloverfield monster and those cool things that went after Kirk in Star Trek.

As for the kids, there’s Joe (Joel Courtney), who just lost his mom in a factory accident. He’s essentially this film’s Elliot, the young boy protagonist from E.T. He’s got a crush on Alice (Elle Fanning) who plays the femme fatale in their teen zombie film. You also get Riley Griffiths as the fat kid and Gabriel Basso as the projectile vomit kid.

Because Abrams crams the film with so many subplots, nobody gets to really shine as a performer, and the marauding alien actually comes off as a supporting player rather than a menacing villain. When Abrams actually tries to make the alien a sympathetic character with mere minutes left to spare in his film, it’s quite laughable. The film often shifts gears abruptly and never really settles on its own identity. In short, it’s a mess.

By the time most of the film’s protagonists are staring upward as a spaceship blasts into the sky—a total E.T. moment—Abrams hasn’t earned the emotional payoff. The group of characters bathed in spaceship light feels like a fake, plastic representation of Spielbergian fandom. It’s admirable that Abrams likes the Master Who Gave Us Jaws so much, but it’s tiresome the way he flaunts that fandom.

Abrams doesn’t hit the mark this time out. While I like and appreciate the man greatly, Super 8 is a reminder that he’s capable of dropping the occasional stinker. It has far more in common with his generic, tone-deaf Regarding Henry script than his epic Star Trek.

Mr. Abrams, get the Enterprise out of the mothballs. No more masturbatory Spielberg riffing. Your own style suits just fine—most of the time.