by Gary Westfahl
In the beginning, some little-regarded filmmakers in the 1950s created the genre of science fiction film with a series of unpolished but evocative movies that to this day can impress viewers with their energy and originality. Then, in the 1970s, young filmmakers like George Lucas and Steven Spielberg made films that reflected and drew upon their childhood obsession with those films. Now, with the appearance of J. J. Abrams’ Super 8, we observe a new generation of filmmakers making films that reflect and draw upon their childhood obsession with Lucas’ and Spielberg’s film-obsessed films. Science fiction is becoming metafiction.
This is especially apparent in Super 8 since its story includes a character based on young Spielberg, a nerdy suburban kid making an amateur science fiction movie with his friends when they suddenly find themselves in the middle of an actual science fiction film. Indeed, since Abrams steals from pays homage to so many earlier films, one wonders why he didn’t borrow the conclusion of Invaders from Mars (1953) to portray most of the film’s events as the wild dream of his young protagonist, special effects artist Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney), which would also neatly account for all of the plot’s obvious absurdities. (There are even hints of support for this interpretation, like one character’s comment that the film’s opening train wreck is “like a disaster movie,” or the fact that soon after Joe dresses up as a soldier for his friend’s film, his father dresses up like a soldier to escape from captivity). But Abrams is striving to seem sincere, even while offering viewers a film that is relentlessly inauthentic. Thus, experienced filmgoers may find it difficult to concentrate on the story line, distracted by the impulse to count the number of previous films that are being referenced.
Without revealing too much about later developments, one can say that the basic plot of Super 8 is taken from the classic It Came from Outer Space (1953), embellished by elements of various other films from Abrams’ youth; the ones that immediately come to mind include Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Alien (1979), E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), and The Goonies (1985), but others can surely add to the list. (The only aspect of the film not previously observed, the making of the film-within-a-film, is as noted lifted from Spielberg’s biography and in any event becomes an irrelevant subplot as the film progresses.) Arguably, then, it required a bit of chutzpah for Abrams to say that the film was “written by” him; “compiled by” might have been more accurate. To put it another way, if a film that draws upon multiple predecessors is said to be “well researched,” Abrams has produced a dissertation; and it may require a young scholar to write an actual dissertation to document every single source that Abrams has drawn upon. Precisely why he was drawn to such a project remains a mystery, but perhaps, having memorably revived two stagnant franchises with Mission Impossible III (2006) and Star Trek (2009) (review), he felt compelled to demonstrate that he could successfully helm an “original” film. If so, he has conspicuously failed.
Anyway, one might say in response, what’s wrong with a film that artfully redacts some earlier films for young audiences who may not be familiar with the originals? But even an uninformed viewer, I suspect, can detect the difference between a story drawn from real experiences and a story constructed solely out of exhausted tropes. Even since Spielberg, for example, everyone knows that the chief purpose of alien invaders is to transform dysfunctional families into strong, loving relationships, and Abrams turns up the volume by presenting not one but two inadequate single parents with troubled children – deputy Jackson Camp (Kyle Chandler) and son Joe, and ne’er-do-well factory worker Louis Dainard (Ron Eldard) and daughter Alice – who both become Fathers of the Year after their town is disrupted by some mysterious abductions and colorful explosions. Can anybody really be moved by such blatant contrivances?
Another unpersuasive convention – that all government officials and corporate executives are evil, carrying on dangerous business while brutally concealing everything from the public – is observed in both the main story and the film-within-a-film being made by young director Charles (Riley Griffiths) and his friends Joe, Alice, Cary (Ryan Lee), Martin (Gabriel Basso), and Preston (Zach Mills). It is an obvious rip-off of George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978) involving sinister experiments at the Romero Chemical Company (!) that are turning people into zombies. If you stay for the closing credits, you will get to see Charles’ completed film, entitled The Case, in its entirety, though it is actually not worth waiting for. Its implicit message would seem to be that if you try to make a crudely derivative film enlivened by ingenious special effects, the result will not always be successful entertainment. Yet in a sense, that is exactly what Abrams has done. As another way to explain a lesson to be drawn from the film-within-a-film, one might say this: if your film consists entirely of material taken from earlier films, then you are effectively making a film about zombies, and the results will necessarily be lifeless. (It would be nice to argue that Abrams was deliberately commenting on the flaws in his own film by means of The Case, or that his entire film was designed to function as a disguised commentary on the problem of making overly imitative films, but this is a version of a standard defense of bad art, that the artist is intentionally making bad art in order to make some provocative point.)
While the bad guy in The Case is Romero’s duplicitous CEO, the main story, as another brilliantly innovative touch, employs a sadistic military officer enigmatically named Nelec (Noah Emmerich) as its villain, who breaks all the rules in pursuit of his questionable goals while happily torturing or killing anyone who gets in his way. While he is not as over-the-top as Colonel Quaritch in Avatar (2009) (review), these characters do reveal a paradox: today, in popular discourse, political leaders and ordinary citizens regularly fall over themselves showering praise upon the courage, dedication, and integrity of the American military; yet if a soldier has a major role in an action film, he will more likely than not be portrayed as a homicidal sociopath. Obviously, for most filmmakers today, following the time-tested rules in the playbook is more important than reflecting contemporary attitudes.
Another issue to raise is the film’s breathtakingly vacuous setting, the fictional town of Lillian, Ohio. As someone who grew up in Los Angeles, Abrams has neither the ability nor the desire to imbue his construct with anything resembling a true small-town atmosphere, aside from some instructions to the production designers; rather, this is yet another generic trope dating back to the 1950s. For as anyone can anticipate from the way the film is promoted, it comes to focus on the discovery of an alien intelligence, and clearly advised by their own version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, visiting aliens who intend to openly destroy things always go to major metropolises like New York, Los Angeles, or Tokyo, while aliens who intend to remain undercover make their way to small towns in sparsely populated areas. Here, a small town in Ohio was an obvious choice since that is where Spielberg was born (even though Super 8 was actually filmed in nearby Weirton, West Virginia).
Preoccupied with taking notes for a projected Annotated Guide to Super 8, one almost forgets that there lie at the heart of such films some serious questions. Since humans may actually encounter aliens in the future, this is an eventuality which science fiction might profitably ponder today. What would a genuine alien be like? How should we respond to it? How might we communicate with it? One hardly notices that, like so many films of its ilk, Super 8 has absolutely no interest in exploring such issues. Its alien is a device, pure and simple. Its implausible physiology, teasingly revealed as the film progresses in the classic manner of Alien, is exclusively drawn from ancient nightmares and legends, as are its impossible dietary preferences; its arbitrary actions are driven exclusively by the exigencies of the plot; and considerations of its fundamental nature are reduced to one anthropomorphic question: is it good, or evil? Further, while assembling the details of his story from various antecedents, Abrams has lost sight of what is arguably the only important point being made by the films he is emulating: that those with an interest in monsters represent society’s nerds and misfits, who thus have a natural affinity with aliens that better adjusted people lack (as recently foregrounded in Alien Trespass (2009) (review), which profits from directly mimicking 1950s films instead of later homages). No, the ultimate reason that Joe and the alien will connect is that they both have had “bad things” happen to them, a phrase that encapsulates the profundity of this film. (Oh, and both of them like to make models, recalling the odious conceit of E.T. that children and aliens can relate to each other as playmates.)
What Abrams seems to have focused most of his attention on, instead, is trivia. As if irked by previous films featuring anachronistic songs that did not match their historical era, he was careful to include in his soundtrack only songs from the mid-1970s that had actually been released by the summer of 1979 (though one could argue that ELO’s “Don’t Bring Me Down,” released in July, 1979, came slightly after the events of the film, which begin at the end of the school year in June, 1979). All of the genre posters on the walls of Joe’s and Charles’ rooms feature works that preceded 1979, including Star Wars (1977), Dawn of the Dead, and the February, 1978 issue of Detective Comics featuring Batman and the Joker. At a family gathering following the death of Joe’s mother, which occurred on February 1, 1979 according to her tombstone, a television features Walter Cronkite reporting on the Three Mile Island incident, which did occur around that time (though a bit later, at the end of March, 1979). Joe explains to Alice that he learned how to do his monster makeup from The Monster Makeup Handbook, an actual publication from the 1960s (as an issue of Forrest J Ackerman’s Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine) written by makeup artist Dick Smith. The poster of the space shuttle on Joe’s wall might seem out of place, since the shuttle did not fly into space until early 1981, yet the first space shuttle, the Columbia, was actually assembled and delivered to Kennedy Space Center in March, 1979, and hence it could easily have been the subject of a poster. (This also sets up a rather gruesome in-joke, as an alien artifact later bores a large hole through the image of the shuttle, anticipating what actually happened to the Columbia in 2003.) No, the only genuine anachronism in the film, which only a maniacal nitpicker would ever detect, is that the Hewitt Baseball Camp in New Jersey, where Jack Camp wants his son to go for the summer, did not actually get started until the 1990s. Overall, instead of this remarkable concern for historically accurate details, Abrams might have better spent some time on matters of greater import, like having his small-town characters actually look or act like people who live in small towns, or offering an alien that didn’t look like a computer-generated amalgamation of sixteen previous film aliens.
Ultimately, there are two ways to defend a work of science fiction: to say that it uniquely ponders humanity’s possible futures and their implications, or that, like other meritorious works of literature, it builds upon the author’s experiences to thoughtfully comment on the human condition. Whatever its value as mindless entertainment, Super 8 fails both tests. It has nothing substantive to say about our potential contacts with alien intelligence, and it presents no hard-earned insights regarding real people and their real problems. It is simply an artfully executed exercise, demonstrating that if there are no original ideas available for a new film, one can always take twelve previous successes, put them in a blender, and generate some homogenized pablum that will attract a large audience, at least for one weekend. Indeed, as computer technology keeps advancing, it may become possible to create such products without actually filming them, as one will instead be able to modify and blend footage from several previous films so as to craft a seamlessly recycled narrative with an attractive patina of novelty. Then, talented filmmakers who are sometimes inclined to make poor decisions can find better things to do with their time.