With the exception of “X-Men: First Class,” this summer’s blockbusters have been disappointing fare, from the franchise misfires of “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides” and “Transformers: Dark of the Moon,” to the failed launch of “Green Lantern.”
To its credit, “Super 8” could have been a real contender for the smash of the season — in the summer of ’78 or ’82. With its familiar tale of adolescence and aliens, this latest effort from director J.J. Abrams would have been a subdued, but popular relative of “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial.” Thirty-odd years removed, however, “Super 8” seems more a polished antique than a fresh reimagining of these Steven Spielberg classics.
“Super 8” has Mr. Spielberg’s fingerprints all over it, both literally and figuratively, as he is both producer and muse of Mr. Abrams paean. One wonders what compelled Mr. Spielberg to lend his name to what is essentially an unabashed remake of his own work. If his intention were to prove his own supremacy over the subject matter, then applause to Mr. Spielberg, for his protégé’s work lacks the narrative touches that make “Close Encounters” and “E.T.” affecting and unforgettable pieces of filmmaking.
“Super 8” follows a gaggle of teenage boys (particularly best friends Joe and Charles), on the cusp of summer and smack in the middle of puberty, as they spend their vacation days making model trains, playing with firecrackers, and filming a zombie movie. Though Mr. Abrams fails to draw any sly caricatures of his idols with his young cinephilic protagonists, it is an enjoyable exercise to imagine the corpulent, impetuous Charles as George Lucas and the spindly, starry-eyed Joe as Mr. Spielberg.
Their insular male fiefdom is broken up when the friends realize they need to recruit a female lead for their film, a job they give to their popular classmate Alice, played by Elle Fanning (“Somewhere,” “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”). With Alice on board, the cast and crew pile into her father’s Buick Skylark and fly off for a midnight shoot at an abandoned railway station, where they narrowly escape with life and limb after a massive, terrifying train derailment.
Unbeknownst to the youngsters, the wreck unleashes a monstrous, unearthly creature in their sleepy Ohio hamlet. This beast, as with almost all aliens in films lacking an “R” rating, only seeks to escape its surly bonds (in this instance, the chains of the United States government and the sadistic Air Force Colonel Nelec) and return to its home planet. Once on the lamb, however, the creature begins ravaging the town, scavenging for materials to assemble a spacecraft capable of fleeing his captors.
Every other major plot twist in “Super 8” is more predictable than the sales figures attached to Mr. Spielberg’s name. Mr. Abrams’ pen rarely strays from the worn tracks of his mentor, delivering scene after scene of adolescent angst and mischief that are the routine fixtures of summer months, both inside and outside the theater.
While Mr. Abrams’ portrait of the auteurs as young men does inspire nostalgia, as surely the director intended, this reviewer only feels a melancholy ache for movies that are not carbon copies of other celluloid masterpieces.
Remaking an iconic piece of cinema, even with the blessing of its artificer, is nothing less than arrogance; allowing and enabling your own piece of cinematic history to be remade is nothing more than avarice. For the sake of the talented Mr. Abrams, it would be best for him to bury this immature digression and to return to the esoteric material that first made him a household name.
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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