Super 8 is one of those movies you may feel compelled to watch in a theater. Its premise and pedigree may not appeal to you as separate elements — J.J. Abrams has yet to find his groove on the big screen; Steven Spielberg is not the box office draw he was decades ago; a story revolving around a group of kids in the suburbs investigating a mystery may strike you as a bit dated (even more so when the story takes place in the 1970s); and aliens just don’t elicit the same excitement from movie audiences they once did. But it’s these elements in combination that have created the buzz surrounding Super 8. J.J. Abrams has been compared to Spielberg so often over the course of his career that pairing them together seems at once inevitable and inspired.
When Spielberg was king — when Close Encounters and E.T. and even, to a lesser extent, Jurassic Park, showed audiences they could feel safe watching a movie in which children were not only the major participants but were also put in perilous danger — his stories played out like chapters from the definitive childhood coming-of-age handbook. The absentee father. Adults who can’t connect with children. Kids who are more mature than the adults around them. It’s remarkable to consider how much a movie like E.T. influenced the way audiences perceive of kids in movies. Prior to E.T., a science fiction movie couldn’t rely exclusively on a child as the lead protagonist (Universal Studios only got the chance to produce E.T. when another studio passed). From the beginning of his career, Spielberg excelled at putting his young characters in jeopardy, and yet we hardly needed to fear for them. A young boy does get killed in Jaws, but that’s a mistake Spielberg never repeated, at least in his family films. Consider the movies he didn’t direct but put his stamp on as producer: Transformers, Gremlins, Young Sherlock Holmes, Back to the Future, The Goonies, and Poltergeist — every one of those films put pre-teens and teens in situations that could easily have ended in death. But because each of those movies had Spielberg’s seal of approval, there was no need to worry: the kids would be all right.
There is an unwritten rule in Hollywood filmmaking that you can’t harm children. It’s a good rule, for the most part, because a film aimed at mass audiences shouldn’t need to resort to the death of a child in order to entertain. Independent movies and foreign films break this rule all the time (I still haven’t fully recovered from The Host), but a Hollywood movie plays a specific role in our culture, and has a specific set of responsibilities. Problems arise when your main characters are youngsters, and the plot involves killer aliens; once audiences catch on that none of the kids will get hurt, whatever bits of suspense you’re hoping to create will be severely undercut. What’s interesting about Super 8 is that it’s a Spielberg film made in a post-Spielberg era. Hollywood filmmakers break the nothing-bad-will-happen-to-children rule with increasing regularity these days; last year’s Kick Ass even had a kid turn into a ruthless killing machine. Consider the Harry Potter films. When the first Harry Potter movie made its way to the big screen, Warner Bros. must have figured it had found the perfect director in Chris Columbus, a guy who broke into Hollywood by writing the script for Gremlins. Columbus, along with Robert Zemeckis and a handful of others, was an integral part of the Spielberg hit machine in the 1980s. The result, at least for the two Harry Potter movies Columbus directed, was a bland mixture of Spielbergian childhood innocence and over-the-top special effects. It wasn’t until the third film that the series really found its footing, when the Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón injected complex emotions and a genuine sense of darkness and danger into the mix. Say what you will about the Harry Potter movies (I happen to be a fan of the third and fifth films of the series), but one thing most everyone agrees on is that the safety of its young characters is never assured. And this sense of dread is precisely what gives the films their kick.
J.J. Abrams is turning back the clock with Super 8, returning us to an era, and an innocent style of filmmaking, in which the darkest elements of the Harry Potter movies would never have been tolerated. Nothing bad is going to happen to the kids in Super 8, and the emotional issues they contend with have been ordered off a menu of boilerplate clichés — dead mom, nerdy kids who are secretly cool (kids who will, in fact, grow up to make Hollywood movies one day!), a hesitant, insecure young protagonist who exhibits heroism when it counts and wins the girl to boot.
When it’s time for the alien to kill someone, that is, when it would entertain the audience to watch the alien kill someone, an adult is conveniently introduced into the proceedings, only to be sacrificed moments later. It’s a pretty horrible trick on Abrams’s part, but it may admittedly be the only way to inject real violence into this story without having to sacrifice a kid. J.J. Abrams’s movie is certainly a throwback, and, in that sense, it’s kind of a bold move, combining the plot and stylistic elements of Spielberg’s most memorable films — Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, Jaws, and Jurassic Park, not to mention a healthy dose of The Goonies and John Carpenter’s excellent 1982 remake of The Thing — while setting the story during the era in which those classic films are most closely associated. This hook, combined with the mystery surrounding the alien at the center of the story, has helped make Super 8 one of the most anticipated films of the year.
It’s been out for two weekends now, and though audiences aren’t exactly flocking to see it, the reception has been mostly positive. Its box office prospects are in fact quite good. While I was watching the movie, it occurred to me that there have always been two distinct ways to make a blockbuster. One way is to tell the story you want to tell and hope people will come to see it, which is how Steven Spielberg and George Lucas approached it in their day, while the other way is to anticipate what people want to see and make a movie meticulously engineered to deliver on those promises. Super 8, for all the excitement it has generated, seems to me firmly planted in the latter camp (as does just about every other blockbuster Hollywood has to offer of late). And that to me is precisely the problem. It comes across as a calculated, cynical movie aspiring to celebrate an actual living film director whose entire film style is the antithesis of cynicism. It’s weird.
I’m assuming J.J. Abrams didn’t make this movie because he needed a hit. I’m assuming his intentions were purer than that. And anyway, the definition of what makes a hit movie today is a topic of some debate. Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides is well on its way to making a billion dollars in worldwide box office, all without garnering a single positive review. With the explosion of overseas box office revenue in the current market, it’s now more likely than ever that Hollywood can make hit movies that nobody especially likes. Later this summer, Universal is releasing Cowboys & Aliens, a movie that sounds like a massive practical joke (on us, probably). Put aliens in a movie, or superheroes, or robots, or just about anything computer generated, and you will make money overseas. When the summer movie season began, box office analysts questioned the wisdom of releasing a fifth X-Men movie, a third Transformers movie, a fourth Pirates movie, a fifth Fast and Furious movie, along with sequels to Kung Fu Panda, Cars, and The Hangover, while simultaneously trying to launch three new and expensive superhero franchises. And while the jury is still out on some of those pictures, so far the sequels and superheroes have won the day. And the single biggest reason for the success of these films has been overseas box office.
Look at the numbers. The Hangover Part II has so far earned $232,674,000 in the States. Amazing. But it’s also earned $256,000,000 internationally — 52% of its box office take. That’s half a billion dollars and counting for a sequel about three friends heading off to another bachelor party. Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides has earned $220,337,000 in the U.S., second only to The Hangover Part II in 2011. But it’s earned an astonishing $731,900,000 overseas, or 77% of its total box office. By the time it’s finished with its theatrical run, it will have taken in well over a billion dollars. Worldwide box office on Fast Five is $591,801,000 and counting, with 65% of that coming from overseas. Thor has earned 60% of its money overseas, for a total return at this point of $435,214,354. 66% of Kung Fu Panda 2‘s earnings have come from overseas, for a combined $423,343,000. X-Men: First Class has earned 58% of its money overseas, and will soon cross the $300 million mark. These are startling numbers. They probably aren’t too shocking to Hollywood executives, who have been carefully studying these trends for decades, but I’m guessing most everyone else would be surprised to know that around 60% of the box office revenue of a typical American blockbuster is generated overseas.
If Cowboys & Aliens, Green Lantern, or Captain America end up underperforming here at home (and Green Lantern opened “soft” this past weekend in America), you can almost guarantee they will make up for those losses in the overseas market. This has every appearance of a bubble, and there are sure to be consequences for the movie industry down the line. But for now, it’s quite possible that no one has to actually like any of these high priced blockbusters in order for them to be successful. It’s enough to load them up with corny dialogue and eye-popping special effects for the money to start rolling in.
But Super 8 was supposed to be different. It was supposed to be the one studio film from the summer of 2011 with genuine cinematic integrity. It was supposed to be J.J. Abrams’s homage to Spielberg, filmmaking, and childhood innocence.
Prior to seeing it, it was referred to in the press as the one major summer release not based on existing source material. After seeing it, no one can really make that claim anymore with a straight face. Matt Zoller Seitz at Salon did a nice job listing many of the most overt Spielberg references, but, amazingly, his list is far from complete. Super 8 is so intensely derivative, it feels like you’re getting a dozen movies for the price of a single ticket. It’s the cinematic version of a pop song mashup: whatever ingenuity it possesses stems not from its own originality, but from the way it cleverly mixes together elements from other sources.
But does it succeed on its own terms? That is, does it successfully blend the most iconic moments from Spielberg’s classic entertainments in a way that also manages to entertain? Well, it would be hard for it not to. If you carry a mirror into a museum and view all the artwork via reflection as opposed to straight on, you’re bound to take something positive away from the experience (even though everything will appear backwards). It’s the same with this film. J.J. Abrams stitches together a bunch of nerdy, wise-ass kids (speaking of which, another major inspiration for this film had to be the original Bad News Bears), throws in a dead mom backstory and an emotionally distant dad, and then leans heavily on every hackneyed sci-fi cliché at his disposal: government conspiracy, alien on the loose in a small town, ruthless military commander, clueless townsfolk who continually disappear, one by one, without anyone freaking out, evil top secret government experiments, a phony disaster as cause for a citywide evacuation, civilians who’ve been abducted by the alien and taken back to its lair but aren’t quite dead yet…it just goes on and on. And there doesn’t seem to be any discernible accountability for any of this. In fact, just the opposite phenomenon has occurred. The film is a critical and popular success, even as its best moments will remind you of better moments from other movies. In this age of remakes and reboots, this kind of ripping off may be considered a selling point, not a liability.
I suppose if it came down to choosing between Super 8 and Green Lantern at the multiplex, you’d have a better time at Super 8. I’m 45, and a huge movie geek, and I experienced each “borrowed” movie reference as a kind of subliminal jolt of recognition. It was as if I were sitting in a nondescript room and a button was being pressed from behind the glass in the next room, and with each press of that button endorphins were released into my bloodstream in the form of scenes from some of my favorite movies. It sounds promising, but after a while you can start to feel heavily manipulated (and sedated), a pawn in some control freak’s creepy experiment. You can’t simply borrow someone else’s work and claim it as your own, even if the main victim of all your borrowing is the producer of your movie. You can’t take cool twists from other movies, rely on them as the cool twists in your movie, and expect to get credit for being cool.