“From writer-director J.J. Abrams,” the poster says in big letters, “and producer Steven Spielberg,” in letters just as big. That marketing triumph of tag-team brand identity is the first thing people talk about, and the salient feature of “Super 8.”
Of course there is something smug and tedious about a doting homage to Spielberg bankrolled by Spielberg. That this sort of thing has been going on for a while now only compounds the tedium. But at least “Super 8” will generate no complaints about the producer misunderstanding or meddling with the writer-director’s “vision.” And although Abrams’ stolid pacing suggests he’s mistaken stiffness for crispness, he does not seem at all paralyzed by the anxiety of influence.
So here we have a summer movie like they used to make (except with special effects like they make now). The setting is an industrial Ohio town in the summer of 1979. The principal players are a group of young amateur moviemakers. They witness, and photograph, a spectacular train crash, and it changes their lives. They discover something that adults don’t understand — except for those adults who do understand, on account of having sinister motives. As we used to say: There’s doin’s a transpirin’!
The kids are good. They get through their perfunctory material with aplomb. The nuances of their hierarchy are well played. A couple of them don’t get enough to do, but that’s how it goes. Charles, the chubby one (Riley Griffiths), is the aspiring director. He knows from intrepid research that production values matter, and that story is important too. He is aware of the marketplace. But he is not our focus, for his friend Joe (Joel Courtney) is slimmer and more universally adorable, with more of an emotional connection to offer us. It’s a screenwriting-handbook-grade emotional connection, but it will do. Joe recently lost his mom, and there’s a girl he shyly likes, Alice (Elle Fanning), but also some bad blood between her father, a ne’er-do-well (Ron Eldard), and Joe’s father, the local deputy sheriff (Kyle Chandler).
Now, if you like seeing kids ride their bikes and pal around and get on each other’s nerves and get into mischief, “Super 8” scratches that itch. If you want more, like a raging space invader with advanced technology, be patient. And if you want more still, don’t push your luck. Was it not clear to you that this film’s first duty is to Spielberg, the original summer movie maestro and more or less the inventor of what we now know as wide release? Did you not see the poster?
The thing is: Even those of us who grew up on summer movies have had time to wonder what life was like before them, and what it might be like after them. Just as kids growing up now might soon wonder what movies can be about besides nostalgia for other movies. “Super 8” is so meticulously derivative that it seems to have hollowed itself out. Abrams can’t or won’t settle on which Spielberg film he’s imitating. (O.K., we know it’s not “Schindler’s List.”) He can’t or won’t go much further. Bogged down with genre freight, he lets the character stuff go. Like Charles, he is aware of the marketplace.
In light of Abrams’ own entertaining “Star Trek,” especially, “Super 8” might become an accidental defense of all the sequels, reboots and other extant-franchise expansions we’ve considered increasingly indefensible. With those, at least, we may presume a high standard for novelty, and the suspense of wondering what variation lies in store for our sacred, shopworn movie totems.
Here there is no suspense. Obviously there is a monster, an alien. It gets revealed gradually, a revelation not really worth waiting for. It doesn’t hurt anyone who is positioned to matter. Its presence pushes feuding factions into detente, ties plot threads up or just ties them off. Although unimportant, it becomes all-important. It becomes the point, instead of the kids and their amateur moviemaking, which is too bad because Abrams was on to something there.