The last time Stephen Spielberg and Tony Kushner collaborated was Munich, the taut, emotionally devastating thriller about the Israeli agents who hunted down the perpetrators of the kidnapping and massacre of Israeli Olympians in 1972. So, I had high hopes for their latest. Lincoln stars Daniel Day-Lewis as the 16th president, Sally Field as Mary Todd and Tommy Lee Jones as the abolitionist senator, Thaddeus Stevens. Unfortunately, instead of making apolitical thriller or a war movie, Kushner and Spielberg have given us an over-long, turgid lesson in Congressional politics and facile morality. The main plot of the film is Lincoln’s wrangling for the passage of the 13th Amendment – to end slavery. Day-Lewis does Lincoln better than anyone ever has, but the whole movie is a dirge. At least the absurdist Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter imagined an audience and tried to entertain it.
I know that editors are necessary, and there are space limitations in print publications, but when I lose a paragraph, it fees as if I losing… well, a meal or a good party. Not a finger. I mean, it’s just a paragraph. Anyway, my review of Super 8 is up at LGBT Weekly. The uncut version is below.
Spielberg is superior, but Abrams’ Super 8 is great fun
Written and Directed by J. J. Abrams
Starring Joel Courtney, Elle Fanning, and Kyle Chandler
At your local multiplex
About half way through J. J. Abrams’ enormously enjoyable Super 8, I watched 15-year-old Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) riding his bike through a small town in Ohio at twilight in the summer of 1979, and suddenly I felt as if it was 30 years ago, and I was in a movie theater in Cincinnati seeing ET for the first time. Abrams is clearly quoting the iconic bicycle riding scenes from the great Spielberg film, just as he is also paying homage in Super 8 to Spielberg’s previous two films from the late 70s, the classics Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Jaws. (There’s a dash of both Goonies and Jurassic Park, too.) While Abrams is not by any means Spielberg’s equal, the younger director, who rebooted Star Trek in 2009 and produced the TV series Lost, Fringe, and Alias, is just as much a populist crowd-pleaser. By repurposing some of Spielberg’s greatest ideas and images and having Spielberg himself approve and produce the film, Abrams has given us the first great popcorn flick of the summer.
The title of Super 8 refers to the film that was used in pre-video amateur movie cameras, which is what Joe’s friends are using to make a zombie movie. During the filming of a romantic scene at a train station, they witness a spectacular derailment. They all barely, and miraculously, survive and discover that the derailment was caused by their crotchety biology teacher. He tells them that if they don’t run and keep what they’ve seen to themselves, “they” will kill them all.
“They,” it turns out, is the US Air Force, which shows up to clean up the wreckage. As dogs, people, and machinery start disappearing all over town – all taken by a large, unseen, and very violent monster – Joe’s father, Deputy Jackson Lamb (Kyle Chandler), tries to get to the bottom of the Air Force’s involvement with the train wreck and strange goings on. Meanwhile, Joe and his friends continue to make their movie, using the Air Force’s invasion of the small town as a backdrop. And Joe falls for Alice (Elle Fanning), who stars in the movie and whose father has something to do with the death of Joe’s mom.
Many of Abrams’ themes in Super 8 mirror late 70s, early 80s Spielberg: the powerful and pure wonder of children, the justified fear of a corrupt military, the painful loss of a parent, the redemption that comes only from empathy and kindness. And Abrams’ casting choices are not dissimilar from Spielberg’s. Joel Courtney, who plays the sensitive, smart, mop-headed Joe, was unknown before being cast in Super 8, just as Henry Thomas was when he was cast as Eliot in ET. And as the key blonde, Abrams cast Elle Fanning, an almost disturbingly brilliant child actress, just as Drew Barrymore was back in the early 80s. The relationship between Fanning’s Alice and Joe grounds the film in an innocent love that propels the story more than the Jaws-like monster attacks.
At its best, Super 8’s homage to Spielberg provides the humor, amazement, and excitement of the films that made sci-fi blockbusters an annual summer treat three decades ago. At its worst, when it was clear that Abrams is relying too much on his idol’s past work, the film reminded me that Spielberg’s genius needs to be revisited. AI, his misunderstood masterpiece about artifice and childhood, is now in my Netflix queue.