Is J.J. Abrams' 'Super 8' the result of an unhealthy Steven Spielberg obsession?
There’s a lot to admire in J.J. Abrams’ new film, “Super 8,” starting with the spirited relationship between Joe (Joel Courtney) and Charles (Riley Griffiths), the teen filmmaking buddies whose interactions illustrate the emotional ties of male bonding better than any grown-up guys we’ve seen in big-studio pictures in ages. Like the kids in his film, Abrams grew up in the 1970s and was fascinated with movies — particularly those of Steven Spielberg, who was then breaking ground with the likes of “Jaws” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”
But after seeing how deeply embedded Spielberg’s works are in “Super 8’s” creative bloodstream, I couldn’t help but think that Abrams has yet to grow out of his adolescent obsession with his hero. He knows how to coax terrific performances out of his young actors and squeeze every ounce of excitement out of an action sequence, but he hasn’t developed a filmmaking style that feels half as personal — or has half as much to say — as what Spielberg did at a much younger age.
In fact, the relationships on “Super 8” are incestuous: Spielberg wasn’t just an inspiration — he’s also the producer of “Super 8.” As Abrams told Time magazine, Spielberg’s presence “gave me license to embrace story elements that were in the DNA of the piece. Things I may have otherwise been too self-conscious to include, not wanting this film to ever feel like it was aping earlier works.”
Perhaps that’s why “Super 8” ends up feeling more impersonal than it should. It’s the product of a dazzlingly bright student too eager to please his awe-inspiring teacher, not unlike when Elvis Costello made an album with Burt Bacharach. Even though the critics have largely embraced “Super 8,” the general consensus seems to be that its first half — which focuses on the wisecracking relationship between the young kids and the budding romance between Joe and Alice (Elle Fanning) — is a lot more satisfying than its second half, which with the arrival of a menacing alien creature and grim Army intelligence operatives is increasingly dominated by all the conventions of a clunky monster movie.
But the movie’s biggest drawback is that Abrams can’t get out from under Spielberg’s broad shadow. In 2011 Hollywood, Abrams is a genuine A-list talent, not to mention the most powerful producer on the Paramount lot. After serving an apprenticeship writing genre movies (“Armageddon” and “Gone Fishin’ "), he emerged as a one-man TV hit machine (“Felicity," “Alias” and “Lost”) before making his film directing debut on “Mission: Impossible III.” Then he produced the low-budget hit thriller “Cloverfield,” rebooted “Star Trek” and wrote and directed “Super 8,” which opened No. 1 at the box office last weekend.
Abrams, who turns 45 later this month, is constantly described as the new Spielberg, thanks to his knack for creating big commercial properties and breathing new life into aging tent poles. Paramount should name a building after him just for the way he revived the “Star Trek” and “Mission: Impossible” franchises. But if you judge Abrams by his movies, you come away with the nagging suspicion that his real talent is as an impresario, not as a filmmaker.
Spielberg, 64, of course, is both. After I saw “Super 8” I went back and watched “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” just to see how much Abrams had borrowed from that film. It was hard not to see Abrams in a diminished light.
Back in the ’70s, reviewers and Oscar voters often treated Spielberg as a cinematic lightweight, especially in comparison with the critical darlings of his era — auteurs like Martin Scorsese, Francis Coppola, Billy Friedkin, Robert Altman and Hal Ashby. The academy didn’t give Spielberg a directing nomination for his industry-altering “Jaws.” Even though he did get one for “Close Encounters” two years later, he didn’t win a directing Oscar until “Schindler’s List,” nearly 25 years into his career and after movies including “E.T.,” “The Color Purple” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”
Seeing “Close Encounters” again serves as a bracing reminder that Spielberg was an original — a filmmaker who not only had his own distinct visual language but always found a way to mesh his shotmaking with his personal themes. It’s surely no coincidence that the key characters played by Robert Shaw in “Jaws” and Richard Dreyfuss in “Close Encounters” are manic men on obsessive quests to understand the unknown, whether it takes the form of an astoundingly destructive creature from the deep or unknowable visitors from the far reaches of the universe.
Perhaps the most important thing about Spielberg’s movies from the ’70s is that they are rooted in the culture of the here and now, full of everyday characters doing everyday things. Abrams’ movies, so far, are largely set in fantasy lands, be it the mythical outer space of “Star Trek” or the nostalgic glow of “Super 8’s” late-’70s Ohio. Perhaps that’s why “Super 8” often feels detached — it’s evoking a place and time from someone else’s movie.
Some filmmakers — Quentin Tarantino and Scorsese spring to mind — have spent much of their career referencing other people’s movies yet have managed to inhale all that celluloid and make it their own. It is almost always a bad idea to be too reverential to your cinema gods. Scorsese’s least interesting films are his remakes, “The Color of Money” and “Cape Fear,” which feel slick and opportunistic, especially when compared with the fevered intensity of “Taxi Driver” or “Raging Bull.”
Unfortunately, Abrams is far from the only modern filmmaker who’s paid too much homage to his forebears. Robert Rodriguez’s “Planet Terror” installment in “Grindhouse” was a mess, with far too many obscure, zombie gore-ridden references to his beloved ’70s exploitation schlockmeisters. Todd Haynes’ “Far From Heaven” was a loving evocation of Douglas Sirk melodramas, but it never quite recaptured the emotional punch of Sirk’s work. “The Good German” may have been Steven Soderbergh’s worst movie, in large part because while he was painstakingly evoking the texture of a 1940s Michael Curtiz or Raoul Walsh film, complete with the use of vintage cameras and film stock, he never adopted any of Curtiz’s or Walsh’s compelling storytelling craft.
Aesthetic tributes sometimes work better in other mediums. Michael Cunningham’s novel “The Hours” plunders a host of literary devices from Virginia Woolf’s “Mrs. Dalloway,” but the revolving stories and stream-of- consciousness narrative give Cunningham’s book a life, and a style, of its own. Hip-hop artists have made careers out of plundering their favorite old records, never with more inspiration than Danger Mouse, whose “The Grey Album” coupled Jay-Z’s “The Black Album” with samples from the Beatles’ “The White Album.” In pop music, students usually pay tribute to their elders by using their clout to give their teachers an infusion of hipster appeal, as Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy did last year with Mavis Staples or the White Stripes’ Jack White did with Loretta Lynn.
Spielberg certainly doesn’t need any box-office juice. Abrams made “Super 8” out of devotion, not duty. It summons many Spielbergian motifs, but it doesn’t build anything new on top of the now-mythic mashed potato mountain in “Close Encounters.” As the Christian Science Monitor’s Peter Rainer quipped, the film is still “pipsqueak futurism set in suburbia.”
Abrams has all of Spielberg’s showmanship and meticulous technique, but at least so far, not nearly enough of his innovation or authority as a filmmaker.
Photo: J.J. Abrams, left, with Steven Spielberg in 2006 at the AFI Awards luncheon in Los Angeles.
Credit: Frazer Harrison/Getty Images