On the surface, J.J. Abrams new film, Super 8, is just that: a heartfelt homage to his hero (and producer) Steven Spielberg that is nothing but successful surface effect. One reviewer has called it a pitch perfect impersonation. A friend I went to see it with said Super 8 was like a montage of immemorial Spielberg scenes. Another felt pesky disengagement because of all the pastiche-ing. Sum total result: futile, formalistic. #Fail.
So, why had venerated journal Cahiers du Cinema given it cover story this month? What subtle intellectual subtext had we totally missed?
I left the multiplex feeling we’d just witnessed a painstaking remake of a Spielberg classic, but not one that actually exists in his filmography. Rather, the ideal, Platonic Spielberg ur-movie, full of shaggy haired teenagers scuttling on BMXs, fragmented single-parent families, imagination-impoverished adults and a message about humanity that comes not from humans but from outer space. Remember how in The Tree of Life, the Mother tells the young Sean Penn character that there is ‘the way of nature, and there is the way of grace’? For Spielberg, the way of grace is often indicated by the compassionate nature of visiting aliens.
But J.J., dude, it’s 2011, and you’ve set Super 8—fetishistically—in 1979. That’s two years after Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind both came out. J.J., why doesn’t your new Goonie squad wanna make a Lucas or Spielberg homage? Why would they remake Romero-style zombie horrors? It’s 1979!
If there is a conceptual motive behind remakes (cashing in on established celluloid brands is not really conceptual, just bone-lazy), it is that something about the original harbours a universal message that applies today. All the story needs is a context shift.
So, in 2010’s Karate Kid remake, the symbolic national struggle is no longer between America and Japan (which during the 80s was being won by Sony et al), but now between a newly empowered China and an economically waning America. The latter has no choice but to disimburse its unemployed citizens—like 46% of its national debt—to the Chinese Communist Party’s eclipsing form of state-capitalism. In the end of the remake, unlike in real-life, America kicks China’s conceited ass. Woo!
There is, therefore, something innately post-modern in the logic of remakes. They tend to be knowing, winking, tongue pressed firmly against inside of ironic cheek. Gus Van Sant took this to an absolute extreme in his shot-for-shot remake of Hitchcock’s Psycho. Imitation, flattery; homage, pathology.
Super 8 however is all absent of post-modern impulse. It’s full instead of cloying authenticity and periodicity. The biggest surprise in the entire film is how it’s so destitute of story surprises. Unless you count the fact that Alien Monster’s face looks a like a Transformer. Homage to Michael Bay?
It’s taken me a sleepless night under summer rain to realize that maybe I was looking in the wrong place. I expected to find meaning where we are accustomed to finding post-modern meaning: on the surface of the surface. But the more I focus on the Elle Fanning character (‘Alice,’ the lone female in a virtual triad of females where one has absconded and the other recently deceased), the more I suspect I ought to be looking under the surface.
Alice is a girl whose emotional intelligence transcends her modest teen-age tenfold. In a scene where she rehearses a scene for the Super 8 zombie-movie the kids are making, she abruptly leaps out of her of adolescent body into the affecting persona of a woman that knows intimately what it means to love and to lose that love. A switch so sudden. Like an alien possession.
This meta-scene has already been compared to Naomi Watts’ chilling read-through performance in Mullholland Drive. What makes both of these supra-acting acts so powerful is the violent irruption of the real just when there’s a complicit expectation of safe artifice. When representation is more life-like than life, you’re momentarily awake to how scripted reality can be.
Throughout Super 8, Alice seems to elicit exceptional compassion, tenderness, and judicious moral insight (look out for a scene where she wishes her father had died instead of the hero’s mother: it’s loaded with all kinds of theological ambiguity about predestination, the painful vacuum of personal loss and the responsibility of guilt). It seems that no one else around her is as consistently privileged to such human acuity. No one except perhaps the maligned and misunderstood Alien Monster.
And this is where lurking within Super 8’s surface pointlessness is something silently true. How sudden bereavement is like an alien invasion of the self; or like a zombiefication where you have to live despite inside feeling dead, dead, dead; or like a personality possession where your grieving childhood jump-cuts to adulthood.
It is no coincidence that the Alien’s exit away from planet Earth at the very end occurs at the very moment the two bereaving, suffering, possessed families find inner closure. Peace. Perhaps. The arachnid-thing can leave because it isn’t needed anymore.