J. J. Abrams has what’s good in Steven Spielberg, and he has what’s bad, but he doesn’t have what’s great. It’s been groaned to death that Super 8 is an imitation of early Spielberg; what seems to be missing is the once obvious fact that Spielberg was, in his more skillful way, also strip-mining childhood influences. But let’s put it like this: Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) is on a whole other plane of being from its predecessors—B movies like This Island Earth (1955). Spielberg reinvented a genre, in his own image, for his own time. The extraterrestrial villains that were second-billed at ’50s drive-ins were read as Red; but by the late ’70s, audiences were scouring the heavens for salvation, so Spielberg introduced them to some friends from above. Abrams is reintroducing us to those familiar faces, and for nostalgists that seems to suffice. Star Trek was a string of self-effacing clichés that, with a few time-warps and a lot of scotch tape, looked reasonably enough like it had a plot; and if you use fluidity as a criterion for quality, Super 8 is way, way wetter. (Sticky, wet, but cozy—like a child’s bed.) What he did with one ready-made multiverse he now does to the year 1979—Blondie! Dawn of the Dead! Three Mile Island! Those were the days!—and his attitude toward it is far more munificent. But he doesn’t try to do anything more than golden-age Spielberg did, and it ultimately amounts to less.
Back in the summer of ’79, Spielberg—then 32—was still considered a wunderkind, and Abrams—then 13—was still an actual kid. Both, if the ballyhoo’s to be believed, were actively making movies. And so are the mill-town kids in Super 8, who inadvertently commit to celluloid their science teacher slamming his pickup truck into an oncoming train. Out pops an alien, in comes the Army, and sploosh goes the movie as it jumps headlong over the shark—the science teacher (played by Glynn Turman, who must be tenured, as he held the same post in 1984, in Gremlins) not only survives the collision, but even has the wherewithal to wave a pistol and instill a sense of foreboding. This isn’t a bad setup, and the writer-director leaves a few trails of Reeses Pieces that I was happy to follow—a sheriff getting abducted as the gas pump goes ding-ding-ding; a whole wall fully feathered with recent lost-dog notifications; a hickey from a zombie, etc. But the dots connect, inevitably, to an arachnid asshole that would’ve eaten E.T. for tapas. We’re told that it’s been in government captivity for over 20 years, and that it’s been mistreated—and underestimated—by their top operative, Nelec (Noah Emmerich). But Nelec is an Ahab with two good legs; he’s Khan without any wrath. And his white whale’s grievances aren’t made clear. Nor, save for the dregs of a humanist attitude, are the reasons we should care about its survival. When Spielberg cordoned his creatures off in spaceships in C.E.3.K., and kept them from appearing until the very end, the gambit paid off because his audiences were still basically F/X virgins. Jaded as we are today, seeing space aliens is no big deal; withholding one for so long, and then not having anything special to show for it, comes off as pomo prudery.
I don’t want to underrate the movie, but it should be noted that it seems willfully engineered to encourage overrating. A lot of this is soggier even than my bed metaphor: The way Super 8 calls up memories, if not the substance, of blockbusters past; the “autobiographical” loving tribute to filmmaking; the passing-of-the-baton business (Spielberg, whose innocence doesn’t always age well, is one of the producers); and that perennial positive criticism: that it’s “original.” To the first, I’ll admit that the child actors—and the intimacy with which they are directed—deserve their praise. The shy-guy hero is a bit of a Mary Sue; but Joel Courtney and Elle Fanning, playing his puppy-lover, know how to keep their cuteness in check. There’s an inchoate pyrotechnician, who straddles the razor’s edge between being a future MythBuster or a future Unabomber. And, of course, the bossy fat kid, Charles (Riley Griffiths, a child-actor name par excellence), who, like myself at one point—and a multitude of others—thinks he can be a great director and a teenager all at once. But they don’t look or talk like characters drawn from Abrams’s life; they’re types. (The caped chunklet in Monster House—another homage à Amblin—was like Charles without the camera.) And the film “motif” is, for lack of a better word, undeveloped. indieWire suggests that the “script is about the fantasy of movies coming to life”—and I guess it is; but if these kids are the cineastes we take them to be, shouldn’t they be more ironical about living out B-movie clichés?