J. J. Abrams’ Super 8
June 11, 2011 § 2 Comments
Could there be a greater megalomania than overseeing one’s own homage? Or perhaps there is always some inherent legitimacy in speaking of a past self as if it were already dead. What then is Abrams’ Super 8 but a move beyond our mourning for this dead? A temporally incongruous elegy set to the glory of visual effects? Here, Spielberg himself stands at his own funeral.
First, some kind words. Super 8 is at times a great beauty, even heart-wrenchingly so and always in the unswerving, sentimental mode of classic Spielberg. Take the final flight of the intruder: a moment at once cosmic and intimate. Successful repetition is indeed a fine art in itself, and even in Spielberg’s early films it was never exactly a simple move to bridge the gap between human emotion and the radical alterity of extraterrestrial life. It would be dishonest for me to say that Abrams fails to accomplish the expression of this basic relation in the crucial moments where such a relation became necessary. His failures, though many, ultimately lay elsewhere. Still, a craftsman is not to be confused with an artist.
Two things are instantly apparent in the span of time up to the film’s blatantly advertised inciting action: the train derailment. First is the nearly flawless writing and casting of the child leads, who more than anything else make this film feel like a relic of the past. Second is the music, which can be felt beginning its manipulative work even before the fade of the lovely Amblin title card. Here Abrams adeptly recreates the relevant densities of Spielberg’s trademark chaotic household with all its moans and groans, distracted interjections, and sibling antagonism. This is all, of course, meant to stand in contrast with the solitude of our main character. It is during these establishing moments when Abrams most echoes Spielberg’s cynicism, even going as far as to explain the very notion of an artificial love interest through the caricature of the adolescent filmmaker and his dependence on pragmatic formulas. Hang as many lanterns as you will, but such formulas have always informed and continue to inform the very character of Spielberg’s sentimentality.
Where some reviewers already complain that the film’s reliance on homage and nostalgic cliché undermine the autonomy of the viewing experience, I would assert the opposite: true homage is precisely what Abrams failed to create. It is an old saying that if you are going to do something, you should do that thing well and to the fullest of your ability. As I mentioned earlier, Abrams’ skillful treatment of the human story in the mode of E. T. could not be called anything other than a success. Yet, in retrospect, these moments seem to stand alone as isolated coalescences. The film fails to approach them from any direction, to give us a sense of culmination.
It is precisely because Super 8 had so much potential to be a singular and lasting tribute to the indefinable beauty and excitement of such inceptional summer blockbusters as Jaws, E. T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind that Abrams’ haphazard remix with high-tech visual effects can only be a product of our modern standards for marketability. It is not as if Abrams has proven himself to be some sort of auteur immune from these influences. In this era of Cloverfield, who would dare entertain an alien film without explosions and the obligatory monstrous ROOOAAAARRRRR? It is no coincidence that the film’s pivotal train derailment sequence syncs precisely with Abrams’ derailment of a dignified vision of tribute. It was almost as if, in order to appease the audience for their coping with the comparatively uneventful exposition, an extremely violent and effects heavy scene had to be implemented to reel their already-sleepy dispositions back into the fold of what a blockbuster must mean today. Once again, we are granted our token monster chase sequence, but instead of biologically infeasible creatures or technologically unwieldy robots, we have an endless train that seems to inexplicably follow the running children wherever they go like a conscious agent who is mad as hell and isn’t going to take it anymore.
Much better done and more necessary is a similar sequence appearing later in the film where the army’s weaponry is misfiring all over the town (no doubt caused by our visitor). Many great images are conjured here, and it serves the remainder of the film well by situating it into a firmly irreal tone. But, since our entire story began with the one of the biggest and longest sustained explosions (even by today’s standards) any of us have ever seen, there is already a sense of monotony and familiarity of visual texture that destroys the tonal uniqueness of this rising action. To put it simply, Elliott’s first encounter with E. T. cannot involve flying through the night sky if this is to serve as an effective image later on. A simple, subtle visual effect can have a tremendous effect if it is placed correctly, if one releases it at the right moment when all the right narrative forces are at work. For, even if Abrams admirably makes sure our monster is not ready for its close-up until just before the very end, its bombastic violence had already at that point become somewhat of a sustained ordeal, minimalizing its mysterious nature and explaining it away as a brute. Just why was the injunction to stimulate so great in this particular film? Could the film’s child characters’ own desire to achieve new heights in “production value” be an unconscious parallel with Abrams’ similar and ultimately juvenile desire?
In generic artistic terms, these conflicted modes mark the difference between classical, romantic, and pop. The first seeks for the maximal expressiveness of some universal spirit. The second seeks to cater slavishly to the obvious but undeniable. The last seeks to subdue into submission the very audience it is presenting itself to. Indeed, if we are to say one good thing about Spielberg, it is that he always refused to allow his work pass into the last stage. Abrams clearly does not share the same scruple.
Perhaps we are today reaching the technological point where, in the words of George Lucas, we no longer experience the interruptive feel of visual effects. Lucas’s strategy on this front is clear: deliver an onslaught of all-pervasive visual effects. Of course, this is not inconsistent with the entire idea of an aesthetic. Lucas’s aesthetic (and to call it such is indeed a stretch) is just all that much more garish and markedly distracting. A vital question presents itself here: could this film would have worked without half of its visual effects? There is no better way of describing their presence in this film than as interruptive and utterly incongruous with the aesthetic aims of its otherwise charming human story.
Still, if Abrams utterly failed to integrate the science fiction elements into his film as organically and satisfactorily a manner as Spielberg had done again and again, his writing of the film’s human element is almost uncannily Spielbergian. Once again, we are witness to the conflict of an estranged father with his children and, with the help of some phantasmatic force, a reassertion of that paternal authority. Both child leads, Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) and Alice Dainard (Elle Fanning), are conspicuously motherless rather than fatherless. You will be hard pressed to find a Spielberg film where it is the mother who finds her way back into the children’s life. (It is for this reason that I see Close Encounters as Spielberg’s great masterpiece, for it is precisely here that he reverses of this characteristic movement and instead chooses to embrace an anti-Oedipal universality.) In Super 8, it seems that our alien monster is itself a kind of wrathful, post-menstrual reincarnation of Joe’s dead mother. Clearly enraged at her (it is implied) brutal death, she takes out her fury on the town, even going as far as to kidnap the daughter of the negligent man (the other estranged father) who many see as being responsible for her death. In other words, the alien monster becomes the sole interventionary force that, through its violence to the children, reestablishes the parental authority. The film is therefore about Joe and his father’s experience in confronting the nature of the beast, mother and wife to both respectively, and learning to let go of her memory and again lead normal lives in a regenerated Oedipal relationship. Joe and his father learn to mourn by letting go; they learn from the beast precisely how to stop mourning and therefore, paradoxically, properly mourn. It is through this act alone that they finally discover the importance of respecting the absolute otherness of death, the alien alterity of the deceased. This is no doubt also the moment when the monster can take its leave. Perhaps it is Abrams’ original touch here that this is a film can alternatively be properly seen as about letting go, but the moment in which both fathers emerge simultaneously from a military Jeep and go over to embrace their children is nothing less Spielberg at its purest.
Just how necessary was this film anyway? When bombarded by the initial advertising ritual—and its spectacular use of James Horner’s “Through the Window”—part of me felt that its presence was extremely timely. It was about time, I thought, that someone reclaimed the blockbuster from its contemporary artistic death, trapped in the realm of monotonous violence and extravagant visual effects. As wrong as I was about the blockbuster, there were many undeniably beautiful moments where—if it were not for the texting cellular phones in the row before me and even in the hands of a friend beside me—I could have briefly imagined myself a theatergoer of a different time. Indeed, the radical disconnect between the mainstream cinematic zeitgeist of our time and that of just 30 years prior is enough to render any form of nostalgia instantly palpable. This should be given special attention here, since all of the films Super 8 manages to successfully recall were released at least a decade before my birth! So my nostalgia is of a maudlin variety; it is but a simulacrum of a nostalgia, a film within a film.