If Super 8 is truly a mash note to Steven Spielberg, as my husband says, then it also echoes some thing I detest about SS. He’s horrible on the women issue. His immediate reaction to the opposite sex is awe and fear: put her up on a pedestal and drag her down.
His acolyte J. J. Abrams doesn’t naturally share that problem (think Star Trek’s Uhura or Lost), but in creating this homage he steps into the same primordial ooze. Here’s a nostalgic movie set in 1979 about early adolescence where the five boys have distinct characters and are not universally attractive: one has braces, one’s overweight, another is tall and geeky. But then the girl comes along, Alice (Elle Fanning), and she is a glowing Amazon.
Sure, Alice is from the opposite side of the tracks and has a drunken dad, but she’s such an indiscreet object of the boys’ desire. It’s not her purpose to carry the plot or the camera, overcome danger, save the planet or, get bromantic. Her primary purpose is to be the sexual football that comes between the two young male leads: they both objectify her, love her and their one falling out is about their inability to saw her in half and share her.
In the film within a film, the female’s explicit purpose is to heighten the tension we feel for her beloved when he is in danger.
My undying favorite Spielberg character is Karen Allen’s Marion Ravenwood in Raiders of the Lost Ark (possibly my favorite Spielberg movie). And what did he do with that adorably spunky, hard-drinking, truth-telling adventuress? Toss snakes all over her, and then replace her with the blander shiksa goddess (and future Mrs. Spielberg) Kate Capshaw. In Schindler’s List, there’s the eroticized rape of the beautiful Jewess Embeth Davidtz by the stinking Nazi Ralph Fiennes. In Saving Private Ryan, there’s no room for woman (OK, so that was historically accurate but what a bunch of beef.)
At least, in Super 8, object that she is, Fanning, 13, has the break-out moment of her career, a scene of acting surprise that recalls Naomi Watts in Mulholland Drive One minute, Fanning’s Alice is an awkward tween, the only girl on the film set; the next she’s acting before the rinky-dink super 8 camera, blowing away her mumbling male co-star with a passionate, incandescent, adult performance.
“Was that good?” Alice asks after one take. To steal the boys’ highest compliment, it was “mint!” Props to the tween leaping from child star to romantic lead – and to Abrams for having the grace to allow that beautiful girl to stand out in a way that would have terrified Spielberg in the era that Super 8 memorializes.
Reprinted by permission. Thelma Adams is the film critic at US Magazine and her novel Playdate was published in January.