Expectations are funny things. J.J. Abrams, director of Super 8, has this renowned video from the TED website where he explains his philosophy of storytelling. It’s the “mystery box” view, which basically means you’ve got to establish one, or several “mystery boxes” early and often in your story. These are plot points full of possibility which drive the story forward. This is important, says Abrams, because 1) the box is a metaphor for possibilities. Abrams likes stories about possibilities. Remember the polar bear in Lost? Or the strange prophecy about Sydney Bristow on Alias? Also, 2) the audience needs something to look forward to.When applied to Abrams’ work, it’s clear this is how the man operates. I’ve long considered him the P.T. Barnum of our time. Abrams gets hype, the tease, whatever you want to call it. He knows how to get an audience salivating for more.
The funny thing about the mystery box is it involves expectations, which are almost never a good thing with the movies, in my experience. The higher the expectations, the lower the possibility they’ll actually be met. In addition, expectations can be off base; you go in expecting one thing, you get something else. Even if that “something else” is terrific, it wasn’t what you were expecting, so there’s an element of disappointment involved.
I think that’s what’s at work on Super 8. So much has already been put out there about what’s in the metaphorical box, so to speak, that actually opening the box is guaranteed to be something of a let-down. Remember, Abrams still has the actual box sitting in his office. He’s never opened it. It’s not a let-down, let me just say that early on. But it isn’t a lot of the things that are being said about it. We live in an era of journalistic hyperbole, and Super 8 may be suffering from a bit of that.
There’s a lot to like, perhaps love, about Super 8. It’s full of heart, imagination, and is thoughtfully made. That separates it from, oh, about 90 percent of summer flicks currently in theaters. The few salient things I really appreciated about it:
- The love for filmmaking that bleeds through every frame of Super 8. Abrams cleverly makes a highly autobiographical movie (except for the part about the train crash) about 14-year old kids making a zombie movie on a Super 8 movie camera. If you know anything about Abrams, you know he’s a self-professed movie geek, who grew up worshiping effects and makeup artists like Tom Savini and making these kinds of movies in his neighborhood. Knowing this adds a second layer of meaning to the entire film. We know that Abrams was an excitable kid like the kids on the screen, which means we feel the excitement of Abrams the adult making this movie. It’s kind of a meta trick.
- The nostalgic, small town feel of the picture. Charles, the director of the Super 8 movie within the movie, is always talking about production value. The production values on this movie aren’t slick, but rather appropriate. Abrams and Larry Fong, the DP, fill the daytime scenes and interiors with warm, ambient tones, browns and oranges. There are shots of kids on bikes (remember that, when kids rode bikes?), and lots of banter between the pack of four friends at the center of the movie. In that way, Super 8 doesn’t aspire to be a BIG SUMMER BLOCKBUSTER. It has its quirky charm.
- The edge-of-your-seat scenes, and the one clever plot twist near the end. Abrams knows story. Period. We’ll forgive him for Armageddon, knowing that Michael Bay got his hands all over that one, and remember that he was first and foremost a writer. That’s why there’s a kind of narrative continuity to the script that’s refreshing. Things mentioned in Act One return later, and help our understanding of the themes at work. And, of course, the set pieces with the alien nearby – a gas station and a bus on a deserted stretch of road, most notably, are rendered with impeccable timing.
In its nods to Goonies, Stand by Me, and of course, E.T., Super 8 is garnering Abrams all kinds of comparisons to Spielberg. That’s inaccurate, and unfair. E.T. was one of the most precisely-rendered, beloved movies of all time. How likely is it we’re going to get that again? But there are ways these comparisons are true, and other ways in which they aren’t.
How are they true? Both hold to Hitchcock’s famous credo that knowing the bomb is under the table is terrifying enough; we don’t need to see it. In the same way that Spielberg showed us the effects of Bruce the shark in Jaws and held off on showing us the shark himself, Abrams shows us the effects of the anonymous extraterrestrial in this movie, and coyly holds off on a full-frontal shot until it’s absolutely necessary. The mystery box theory on full display, and it works. Some might argue that it’s all a big tease, but I don’t see it that way. Our imaginations are powerful things.
Both also see the value of tapping into childhood wonder and angst to tell stories for adults. And, most importantly, both are filmmakers who have realized that effects should serve the story, not the other way around. Dazzling effects lose their dazzle when there aren’t characters, a conflict, and universal themes which have been established. And Abrams is careful to exposit all of these so we actually pull for the characters to succeed. That’s when the effects come in.
But there are some notable differences. Abrams is not a particularly poetic or elegant visual storyteller. He relies on adrenaline to tell his tale, and it’s obvious he doesn’t design his movies frame by frame like Spielberg does. There simply isn’t a flawless progression from shot to shot like there are in Spielberg’s movies, and, frankly, that’s what makes Spielberg a cut above. Abrams doesn’t have the vocabulary of film down to the same level of comfort. This is especially notable in high-velocity moments like the train crash at the beginning, or a final showdown-type scene (no spoilers here). He doesn’t provide the kind of shots that would show spatial relationships between characters, so when the running around starts we’re lost in space. There’s also that lens flare thing …
But those are only my minor quibbles with an unfair comparison being made by critics. This is Abrams’ third major film, so he’s got plenty of time to grow. What’s exciting is that this feels like the first true J.J. Abrams movie. He’s established himself with the kind of clout that he can make the movies he wants to make. And if these are the movies he wants to make, I love the possibility of more movies like Super 8. It’s engaging, well-crafted, and has a genuine pulse. There’s true emotion at its core, which, when coupled with imagination and a love for the creepy things that may or may not be out there, is a delicious mix.