There’s one thing that seemingly everybody can agree on when it comes to “King of the Lens Flares” J.J. Abrams’ shrouded-in-mystery throwback to the late ’70s. And that is: something about Steven Spielberg. How the movie has a Spielbergian charm, a Spielbergesque sensibility, a Spielbergish style, a Spielbergaroisnickalop doramvaloosh. And so on in that manner. In addition to that, though, there seems to be arising a sort of consensus on a ‘nother front. While the movie knows how to sell its goods, it also appears to have a distressing lack of emotional weight and in fact throws its characters around like pawns in a go-for-broke game of chess. It’s not difficult to see this complaint, and if you read Devin Faraci’s spoiler-laden review of the film at BadassDigest.com, Abrams’ wooden emotional moments (he wrote the script!) become as impossible to ignore as his continuous lens flares.
But even while I see those issues and think that they’re totally valid, and in Faraci’s case, extremely persuasive, I still liked the movie. I don’t see the emotional carelessness as a hindrance to finding the film enjoyable, and this is coming from a guy whose has confessed that his favorite genre of film is Romance. So why would I feel that way? When I might blast another film for not making its characters relatable or real enough for my sensibilities, what is it about Super 8 that makes it easier to overlook?
To answer that question, I think it’s best to start with the movie’s tendency toward being meta. It begins with the title, which Faraci insists “in fact, is arbitrary. Yes, the kids are shooting a movie on Super 8, and yes they do capture the monster on Super 8 film… but that’s not actually a plot point of any value.” If you’re thinking of it in terms of what does the title mean as regards the plot of the film, it’s a perfectly reasonable claim to make – it does seem ultimately inconsequential in the grand scheme of the mystery. But what the title does do is reference a type of film, which gets you the viewer to thinking about film. The central characters, a group of kids who hang out together, are making a science fiction movie. Guess what kind of movie they’re actually in? The title, and the hobby that these children partake in, calls attention to the act of filmmaking. It’s a different movie if they’re, say, playing baseball when [weird things] begin to happen. Okay, I’m assuming you’re with me so far because that thought alone doesn’t seem too difficult to sell. But the question then becomes: to what purpose does this self-reference serve?
It reduces the need for a gripping emotional story to serve as the glue between the gears. The movie admits up-front what it is doing. It tells you, “We are making a movie.” It’s not long before we meet up with best friends Charles and Joe (the actors’ names are unimportant because they are as of now total unknowns), the director of the monster movie-within-a-movie and the make-up artist for said film. They’re discussing changes that are being made to the script, especially concerning a re-write which adds a wife into the story. Joe is confused as to why the character is needed in the script, while Charles explains with a sigh that her mere presence brings more drama to the events which unfold. If the main character has a wife who loves him, there’s more at stake when he faces off against a horde of zombies. The character is shoehorned into the script, and in fact Charles continues to add additional lines while they are filming. Yes, that’s right. The characters making their movie flatly admit to writing scenes solely intended to pull at the heartstrings, something that Super 8 itself seems to do with unfortunate moments such as a “heartwarming” reunion between parent and child after some absence. The characters’ film is given an extra level of gravitas by the showstopping performance delivered by Alice Dainard (Elle Fanning), a vision which leaves the crew in awe and raises the production value far more than a passing train ever could. Super 8 itself is given an extra level of gravitas by Elle Fanning, particularly in a showstopping scene wherein she watches home videos and seems to speak candidly about her feelings.
Charles tells one of his actors to walk into the back of a scene, you know, just to make it seem like more is going on. Of the other children, Faraci notes that “all the kids just slip out of the movie – Abrams has no idea what to do with them”. Maybe so, but I believe that it harkens back to this idea of placing a character in the scene when it feels right. When two of the children are no longer needed, they are easily left behind and the ones who are most important or useful continue forward. Is this a sign of not knowing what to do with them, or that the Abrams is playing around with them like puppets? Even if it is the latter, I can still understand how one might walk away dissatisfied, but I viewed it as the writer/director being more interested in the action, more interested in what happens than why it happens. Given those clues, I don’t think it’s an unfair interpretation.
I found this bothersome, but it seems to back up my point: the movie continually makes references to the future. When Charles needs to have some film developed, he asks if it can be done in an hour (or overnight, I don’t remember which) and the camera-store employee scoffs at the idea, though because we are living in the future, we are able to scoff back at him because we know that soon enough photographs and video will be developed instantaneously. If the photo-clerk had simply told Charles that the film would be developed in three days, we may or may not have made the connection. By pointing it out in that way, it takes the viewer out of the film for a moment because he or she begins to think about the world as it is instead of the world as it is in the movie. Similarly, another character explains the workings of the new and exciting Walkman. We might see the device and consider the disparity between the film’s reality and the one we are living in currently, but by drawing attention to it this ensures that we consider the differences. It intentionally takes us out of the moment.
The only times that Abrams really wants us to be in the moment are when the [whatever] is wreaking havoc in the town. When he wants to ramp up the tension, that’s when we are there in the dark with the characters. Because the film was able to veer in and out of being personal (“personal”, insomuch as we feel the same fear of the children) with such ease, I was transfixed. In some ways, it seems fair to say that Super 8 is a movie that revels in being a movie. It does not do it with as much flair as Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, for instance, because it’s a J.J. Abrams joint and is therefore more committed to being charged with action. The action is exciting. The slow build of the mystery is entrancing. The child actors are likable and funny. The emotionally-driven scenes come with the disclaimer that it’s all part of the show so just go with it, but it is hard not to be disappointed at their shallowness.
It’s lucky that the movie is so much fun otherwise.