The Film Pitt

Byron Pitt lives and breathes cinema, displaying a rare and sometimes explosive passion for the silver screen - often with unpredictable results. GeekPlanetOnline is proud to present a movies column from the self-confessed “film drunk”; a man who once yelled at an entire cinema for laughing at Johnny English

So Super 8 came out recently and it’s gained some reviews that are a little more than decent. Empire magazine has given it a respectable four stars while Total Film decided to go whole hog with full honours and slap five stars on it. Well, we all know how I feel about star ratings at the best of times.

My twitter feed has been filled with good words, positive vibes and general greatness from not only people I know, but from Paramount pushing the marketing harder than Sisyphus and his eternal boulder. The Rotten Tomatoes meter is certified fresh at 82% at the point of writing this and the great unwashed at the IMDb have it in at a decent 7.5. Not bad eh?

However I've been scratching my head slightly at some of the higher praise the feature has garnered. In fact Super 8 has had me pondering on a word that I try to avoid at all costs: overrated.

Yes, for the first time I am contemplating that word, and I despise when people use it. But as a self-hating, self-deprecating, hipster, meeja node, I think I’ll be OK using the term.

Before watching Super 8 I had high enough hopes for it. JJ Abrams being fresh off an enjoyable take on Star Trek and deciding to hook up with one of the world’s most influential and commercially successful directors (one Señor Spielbergo) seemed to be a dream ticket. The theatrical trailer certainly seemed to think so, carefully tapping into that grazed-kneed and shiny-eyed wonder that one gets from a Spielberg movie or playing kiss chase. Despite being shrouded in a veil of mystery (what a surprise from the creator of Lost) everything seemed to be pointing towards a film harking back to those iconic features of early Steven. You know, the ones everyone holds dear to them until around 1998 when Saving Private Ryan came out, where everyone grew up, got cynical and bemoaned that the family film-maker is a bit rubbish for those family films he makes (mostly film students I swear).

The Spielberg vibe looked like it was going to be joined with Abrams' kinetic direction and as I was one of those guys that even liked Mission: Impossible 3, I felt I could play fast and loose with my chips. I was all in.

Unfortunately one hour and fifty minutes later I felt the twang of buyer’s remorse as Super 8, while pleasant enough left me thinking, ”is that it?”.

It seems so, as JJ’s “personal project” comes out not as much as a homage to Spielberg as a pale imitation.

As a child one of my favourite meals was cottage pie. Of course being the ignorant little brat I was, my taste buds demanded that it had to be from Marks & Spencer’s. My mother tried hiding the fact she nipped into Tesco instead but even if I didn’t see the packaging or was told different, I knew by taste that the meat, mash and gravy wasn’t coming from the usual place and something wasn’t right. Super 8 is Tesco’s Cottage Pie.

Much like Garthe Knight, Mirror Spock, of course Chad Ghostal, Super 8 is an “evil twin”, having the appearance of the original design but clearly missing what it is that we like about the “good” counterpart.

It’s clear that Abrams, like many people, knows those Spielbergian tropes and throughout the film there are moments that appear to share the same DNA. However, often there are scenes that simply lack that spark that made Spielberg features what they are. It’s all very well aping the structure and what not, but what’s the point if you’re not adding that charm that made you want to “homage” it in the first place?

This isn’t like a Quentin Tarantino movie in which obscure foreign films and pop culture are slammed into a blender and then rejigged with his music cues, rat-a-rat dialogue and vast knowledge of visual language (seriously, people forget how good a QT film can just look) to create something that is truly his own. Nor is it like the joyfully goofy Paul, which warmly plays with Spielbergian references but has Pegg and Frost’s Brit humour, the fish-out-of-water element and general affection that makes it stand out. The examples I’ve used exploit knowledge the work of others but Super 8 is so self-conscious with wanting to be like Spielberg, that it can feel more like an exercise than a personal project. The single parent families, the stubborn father figures, the Jaws-like small town livin’ aspect, that bunch of likeable Goonie-type sandlot kids, the music sounds a little bit like John Williams, it’s all there like a checklist, and that’s the problem. Where’s the playfulness? Like Gus Van Sant’s remake of Psycho, there seems to be a belief that because the obvious elements are there, that’s all the film needs. We get a Xerox copy; it’s the same...but not.

Abrams does place some of his own trademarks in there, but even they don’t hang as well as you’d expect. The mystery elements feel like particularly draining mini-episodes of one of his TV series, a brilliant opening gambit of a barnstorming train crash (reminiscent of the opening of Lost) is placed early in the game but never capitalised upon and we get LENS FLARE BLOODY EVERYWHERE.

This isn’t to say that some of the mixture doesn’t gel at all. The cast is beyond solid and have out-acted the likes of Johnny Depp and Shia Lebouf this year. Elle Fanning once again shows that she’s a better actress than her sister (who ironically has been in a Spielberg movie). Her best scene, in which she demonstrates in the movie within the movie that she is an unknowingly quality actress, brings echoes of Naomi Watts’ star-making moment in Mulholland Drive. It is very good. The aforementioned train crash is a great set piece and the film's tone is of a wholesome innocence that only it and Captain America dared to approach. Any film that has a protagonist state as earnestly as he can "I'm trying my best to save your life" amidst a moment of heroism gets a nod from me.

So what’s the bottom line of this all? Well, you get the feeling of that dreaded nostalgia bug in which a clinical mash up of ET and Close Encounters with some added CGI can be considered super duper amazing despite having a meandering second act (seriously can hardly remember what happens) and a really bland “mystery alien” who did nothing but remind me how interesting an Extra Terrestrial Spielberg and John Williams can make with just five notes. We have a film that’s a nice enough distraction but does so much borrowing of iconography that it doesn’t appear to create any of its own. Mention Spielberg to me and I think of Elliott and ET silhouetted against the moon, the introduction of Indy and like ALL of Jaws. What iconic moment does Super 8 give us? And if it’s not aiming for that, then why stand under Spielberg’s shadow?

It’s interesting that many are coming down immensely harshly on the incessant comic book adaptations, sequels, reboots, remakes, and reimaginings. I do wonder if the same people are coming down on this? It may be considered an original work but Super 8 reminded me a lot of Unknown which seemed like it wanted to be Frantic with all of the fun, but none of the prison avoidance. The thing is: Super 8 has similar traits to some of those films that many are getting so worked up about. It follows some source material very closely, there’s a slightly manufactured feel to proceedings (particularly aimed the film's climax), it’s so aware of what it homages that it doesn’t want to stray but somehow still misses what made the original material what it is.

But then again Super 8 does show what state we’re in as we amble along this cinematic landscape, in which brand awareness is stronger than anything else. If Super 8’s Hollywood competition was more original and dynamic, would it have it hit home so hard?

My original review of Super 8 is here if you have resisted the urge to smack me.