Super 8: Spielberg and J.J. Abrams Collaboration

The first, eagerly awaited collaboration between shrewd filmmakers J.J. Abrams and Steven Spielberg, Super 8, sounded like a match made in heaven.  The two filmmakers share similar social backgrounds, similar obsession with movies, and yet the teaming leaves much to be desired—for a number of reasons.

It was their mutual love of Super 8 films that brought these two filmmakers together.  Spielberg, 64, has been an inspiration to Abrams, 44, ever since he was a kid. Growing up, Abrams first discovered the joys of a Super 8 camera (introduced by Eastman Kodak in 1965), at the age of 8, when he began shooting home movies about chases, battles, and monsters. (Monsters are the key element in most of Abrams’ work)

Both Spielberg and Abrams had cut their own teeth on 8mm moviemaking when they were younger.  They both discovered filmmaking in their childhoods, making Super 8 and 8mm format movies, which laid the groundwork for their future big-screen adventures.

As a director, Abrams has made two films “Mission: Impossible III” and “Star Trek,” both commercially successful.  But, here, his attempt to meld plot, character, humor and suspense within the text is less successful than in his previous outings.  As a producer, Abrams was behind the monster-thriller “Cloverfield” (directed by Matt Reeves) and such TV series as “Alias” and the groundbreaking ABC series “Lost” (which ended last season).

The first (and best) reel of “Super 8” is extremely promising.  The tale is set in the summer of 1979, centering on five boys in a small Ohio steel town (the equivalent of Spielberg’s suburban neighborhoods in his pictures).  Their main ambition is to make a zombie movie, while utilizing all their smarts, skills, and the limited equipment available to them.  It’s quickly established that they could not wait for their summer break to materialize their long-held dream.

In rapid, formulaic strokes, we are introduced to the adolescents and their families.  The nominal hero is Joe Lamb (played by the charming newcomer Joel Courtney), a kid trying to come to terms with the death of his mother. His disciplinarian father Jack (Kyle Chandler), a Deputy Sheriff, devotes more time serving his constituency than with his own son, who needs love and guidance.  Left to his own devices, Jack immerses himself completely in the amateurish film project.

Though there are half a dozen kids, only three are fully fleshed individuals; the others are one-dimensional characters, who appear and disappear at random from the plot. The three form some kind of a triangle.  Joe’s best friend is the bright and chubby Charles (Riley Griffiths), a bossy, alert boy, who’s the most committed to the movie project, functioning as the almighty director; Joe’s is reduced to being a makeup artist.  Both boys, who are around 12-13, show professional and personal interest in Alice (Elle Fanning), a slightly older, quite attractive girl who is their leading lady.

Like most children in Spielberg’s movies, the kids in this story are misunderstood and products of one parent families.  Jack, who lost his loving mom in an accident, walks around with the necklace that his father had given her on the day he was born.  Alice is also a member of a one-parent family, headed by an abusive, alcoholic father and the town’s hated lout (played by Ron Eldard), who’s held responsible for killing Joe’s mom in an accident.  Not to worry, in due time, the irresponsible dad will redeem himself and repend for his sins.

Late one night, while shooting their Super 8 film, the teenagers witness a catastrophic train crash that disrupt abrupty their porject, and shatter their equipment (well, not entirely).  The rest of the story details how the mysterious events surrounding the crash reverberate through their friendships, their families, forever altering the way they view their lives and their friends, not to mention their avocation and vocation.

At first, they vow to keep the whole thing as a secret; for one thing, Alice drove her dad’s yellow car without his permission, and without having a license.  For another, on that fateful night, they encounter their biology teacher, wounded in a car crash at the sight of the crash, in bizarre circumstances (that cannot be disclosed here).

The boys soon discover what we viewers have known from the get-go that the crash was not just an accident.  Questions begin to arise and theories to float around.  How was the military involed in the accident? Is there a political conspiracy? Why was the train carrying so many explosives (surely not just to create striking sound effects in the movie?)

Shortly after, in the manner of 1950s Monster-Disaster flicks, strange things begin to happen in and around town. There are unusual disappearances, and all sort of inexplicable events.   For example, Joe’s dog Lucy suddenly disappears, an in one of the film’s nicest scenes, we see Joe standing in front of a board full of notices of missing dogs. (Early on, we get a brief glimpse of numerous dogs feeling town).

When the vet Sheriff disappears (while filling his car’s tank in a gas station), local Deputy Jack Lamb assumes power, which means he has even less time for his son.  But in trying to be the first to uncover “the truth,”  Jack comes into direct conflict with the military officers, who arrest him!  It’s at this point, that the storytelling begins to disappoint, despite Abrams’ valiant efforts to play with (and sometimes against) our built-in expectations, based on watching countless sci-fi-and disaster films of the 1950s and 1960s.

For about a reel or so, “Super 8” leads us to believe that we are about to uncover some terrifying, unbearable truth.  To that extent, Abrams conceals a full and clear view of the alien, spider-looking creature as long as possible.  Our level of anticipation increases only to be crushed when we finally see the Monster, which as far as contempo (and old) movies are concerned is vastly disappointing; it’s big and mechanic without ever being scary or exciting to behold.

Increasingly,  the plot of “Super 8” gets to be a mishmash of overly familiar narrative conventions and codes borrowed from Spielberg’s (and other directors) films, not to mention that it’s full of holes–even by movieish standards.  But I’d like to be fair to the filmmakers and single out some positive and pleasurable aspects of the storytelling.

Abrams’ treatment of the tentative romance which evolves between Joe and Alice is impressive and represents the most tender and most compelling element of the narrative. Their interaction is initially strictly “professional,” when he applies make-up to the character Alice is playing.  Then, gradually, despite (and because of) the fact that both of their parents are against their friendship, albeit for different reasons, the couple realizes that they are really soul mates, who share interests and feelings in common. It’s hard to recall a recent American picture in which first love was depicted in such a sensitive and convincing way.

Sharply uneven, “Super 8” is a peculiar work, one that is as much about movie genres (and our expectations) as it is a legit story in its own right.  A self-reflexive, self-conscious film, “Super 8” channels Abrams’ love for and knowledge of genre films of the 1950s by paying tribute to the oeuvre of maestro Spielberg in the 1970s and 1980s.  In the course of the narrative, Abrams pays homage, explicitly and implicitly, from his debut Duel,” to “Sugarland Express,” to “Jaws,” and most specifically, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial,” and “Poltergeist” and “The Goonies” (which Spielberg produced but did not direct).

Almost every scene in “Super 8” pays tribute or makes allusions (directly and indirectly) to a similar or parallel sequence (or line of dialogue, or gesture) in one of Spielberg’s pictures.  In this respect, “Super 8” is not just inspired by Spielberg’s work but owes its entire existence to him.

Structurally, “Super 8” feels like a pastiche, a compendium of conventions and clichés of at least three genres: sci-fi, horror-disaster, and coming of age tale with strong romantic touches.  It’s a picture in which individual parts are more significant and interesting than the overall system in which they are contained.

I think “Super 8” would have been a much better, tighter picture had Spielberg directed it himself and Abrams served as producer and writer.  As it stands now, the film lacks narrative coherence, smooth transitions from one subplot to another, and elegant style, all elements of Spielberg’s distinctive and distinguished filmmaking.


Jackson Lamb – Kyle Chandler
Alice Dainard – Elle Fanning
Joe Lamb – Joel Courtney
Martin – Gabriel Basso
Nelec – Noah Emmerich
Louis Dainard – Ron Eldard
Charles – Riley Griffiths
Cary – Ryan Lee
Preston – Zach Mills