“Super 8” is a film that traffics primarily in nostalgia, which shouldn’t be news to anyone. Set in 1979, even the film’s title makes it abundantly clear that this movie is a throwback. Steven Spielberg as producer just cements the obvious. J.J. Abrams’ new blockbuster is an unabashed homage to the movies he grew up on, from “E.T” to “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”. Everything from the plot and characters of the film to the art direction and the music send you back 40 years to a golden age of sci-fi and Spielbergian magic. It’s absolutely dripping with ecstatic fond memories of childhood inspiration.
Unfortunately, to quote the title of Simone Signoret’s memoir, “nostalgia ain’t what it used to be.” The failure of this film derives almost exclusively from the fact that Abrams appears to have put much more effort into emulating Spielberg’s classic style than into actually constructing a compelling and entertaining film. It has its moments, certainly, and there are times when you feel the younger director’s nostalgia yourself. But on the whole “Super 8” so overshoots its goal of creating the ultimate memory lane that all of the necessarily original elements of the film (the story, for example) collapse in a heap before your very eyes. The last act is an embarrassing collection of narrative choices that attempt to tug your heartstrings and boost your adrenaline but inevitably just seem silly and mind-bogglingly novice. (I will avoid spoilers, mostly because a discussion of the specific problems in the film’s climax will give me a headache.)
The biggest problem with a movie built entirely around nostalgia is that we’ve probably seen it all before. That seems like an obvious critique, and possibly an unfair one, but it’s important. Which would you rather watch: “The Goonies” or the band of admittedly charismatic but mostly derivative kids in “Super 8”? The 1985 flick (for which Spielberg wrote the story and served as producer) is a classic because it added something new to the genre films that had come before. Its blend of humor and adventure was, and still is, distinctive. “Super 8” is a well-made imitation, but nothing more.
I’d like to take issue with Ty Burr’s claim that the “Super 8” is “a good movie that makes you want to go home and re-watch a great one.” A well-done homage is a wonderful thing, but this is not so much homage as it is a Frankenstein’s monster of Abrams’ favorite movie elements from his youth. This movie doesn’t make you want to go home and re-watch an old favorite; it makes you wish that’s what you had done with your evening in the first place.
Michael Giacchino’s score is a perfect example of the problem. Like the now-legendary music of “E.T.” and “Jaws,” Giacchino’s work does not subtly evoke emotions but rather almost verbally tells you what to feel. In most movies that style could quickly become oppressive but Spielberg’s better films get away with it because the musical composition itself is so exciting and iconic. They were deeply original and cutting-edge scores that became instant classics. “Super 8” on the other hand builds yet again from the basics of nostalgia without adding anything unique or original. The music tells you what to feel in exactly the manner of a 1970s Spielberg blockbuster, but without any of the requisite creativity.
It goes on and on. Plot elements are ripped directly from “E.T.” without much effective incorporation into the larger narrative of the film. Abrams tries so hard to evoke the beloved movies of his childhood that he almost forgets that he’s making a new one of his own. Then again, I suppose it would be unfair to ignore the few aspects of “Super 8” that do smack much more of the young director’s style than that of his heroes. There’s quite the wide range of explosions, well beyond the train crash that sets things in motion, and each makes successively less narrative sense. Then, as things get a bit messier, “Cloverfield” jumps into the mix. The inevitable monster is almost anachronistic in its high-tech 21st century CGI composition and takes “Super 8” to a final higher level of nonsense. It’s really a shame that the one decidedly Abrams-esque “character” in the film comes so late and just refuses to mesh with the 1970s milieu he’s created. Maybe if the director had put more effort into updating and paying tribute to his favorite films, instead of simply regurgitating their most successful elements, the climax would be less excruciating.
Nostalgia is a good source of inspiration, but it’s not the best principle on which to arrange an entire film. Abrams’ lackluster plotting and excessive use of ‘70s and ‘80s throwback elements, when haphazardly combined with some of his own mediocre sci-fi tendencies lead to little more than a hopeful yet inferior replica. Stay home and curl up with some vintage Spielberg this weekend, it’s what you’ll wish you’d done anyway.
“Super 8” opens today everywhere.
Recommended if you like: “E.T.”; “Cloverfield”; “The Host”