Spielberg Without the Schmaltz

I’ve taken a lot of verbal abuse through the years for my aversion to two “classics” by Steven Spielberg, specifically ET and Back to the Future.  I’m not in the camp that hates any film with Spielberg’s name on it.  In fact, I have grudging respect for Close Encounters, I really liked 2 of the 4 Indiana Jones films (the last one has some good moments), and I thought Schindler’s List was a great film.  Spielberg, in my humble opinion, is an amazing director with a great sense of camera placement and movement.  On the other hand, sometimes he is unable to pick a good script, and sometimes he can’t resist doing the cheesiest possible cinema tricks to extend a scene.

This is why I was very hesitant to see the newest Spielbergy picture, Super 8.  Now, I realize that the film is the brainchild of director JJ Abrams, but then Back to the Future was ostensibly Bob Zemeckis’ picture.  It’s long been my contention that the streak of schmaltziness that runs through the center of Back to the Future belongs to Spielberg, since most of Zemeckis’ other films suffer less from it.  And then there’s the Spielberg-(executive) produced The Goonies, which was so bad that I couldn’t even make my way through it. (Yes, I realize that there’s a group of people who think that was a great film, and I weep softly for them.)

Abrams is a mixed bag for me.  I saw some of his TV series Lost, but one of the things it lost was my interest.  I understand it spent several years building to a cheat “whoops, I’m dead” climax, something out of Twilight Zone 101.  Star Trek I didn’t see, because I just couldn’t face the idea of it.  I’ve enjoyed Abrams’ Fringe on the occasions I’ve seen it.  And, strangely, I was the one guy who liked Abrams’ writing debut, Regarding Henry.    Well, I guess there were a few others, but for some reason, there are a lot of people who hated Regarding Henry.

What generally bothers me about the Spielberg-produced “kid films” is that they all have similar themes.  You can run them off like a laundry list: 1) All of the adults are idiots.  2) The kids are magically smart.  3) There will be a stupid plot device late in the film that will be milked past the point of credulity… one that will make me squirm in my seat.  4) The main kid will have trouble with his father or father figure because Spielberg himself did, and, since he can’t get over that, we have to sit through him working it out in all his movies.

Abrams doesn’t do this!  He doesn’t fall into the Spielberg traps!  Amazingly, Super 8 does a very good job of working on two levels: a) it’s aimed at 15-year-olds with lots of explosions and chases but b) it’s not so stupid that adults wince while watching it.  This is an amazing feat these days.

People leave me nasty comments if I don’t talk about the plot a little, so I will: A group of kids accidentally capture a train wreck on film during the making of their amateur horror picture.  It turns out to be an Area 51-type conspiracy.  The train was carrying an alien who may or may not be evil and murderous.  And the Air Force wants to cover the whole thing up.

I have a number of things to say about the film, and I’ll segment it into three categories:


Abrams’ teen characters are believable and feel real.  I really liked the interaction, and it did feel like it was taking place in 1979.

The 8mm filmmaking material is impeccably handled.  Extra bonus points for the courage to show the teens’ finished film over the credits.  Classy.

The adults in this film have a real story and aren’t just idiots.  Rather than being one-dimensional clichés (ET), you can see interpersonal struggles and it works well.  They are trying to be good people and parents under bad circumstances.  There is no Spielbergian happy ending in which the clueless parent suddenly wakes up and hugs his kid.  The hug happens here, but it resonated with me much better, because it was a happy reunion: the kids and the adults had come through the same troubles and worked through them.

I’ve been sick of the interminable computer-generated monsters for years.  Abrams is really smart about his monster.  We don’t even see it for some time, and then when we finally do, it’s only in little bits.  There’s an extended suspense of “what is this?” that is handled in the same way it might have been done in the 1950s.  We never actually see the alien in the full sunlight, so the spidery sinewyness of the creature is never lost on us.  Sometimes we see more when we see less.  (Please read this paragraph, Michael Bay.)

Elle Fanning as the teen romantic interest is an amazing actress.  She is able to express emotions fluidly and well.  She steals every scene she’s in.  I predict that good things lie ahead for her.


I’ve seen train wrecks and the one in this film is ridiculously over the top.  It lasts too long and gets silly in its excess.  I remember in physics class they taught us that momentum = mass times velocity.  Some of those cars are moving faster after the accident than before it.

I know that modern films avoid having real plots.  I’m not quite sure why this is.  Could we get more explanation of what the alien is doing on the water tower at the end?  I’m sure that there’s probably a director’s cut of this film that makes more sense than what got released.  Is it too much to ask that plot points be explained a bit?  Just a bit. Please?

There is a scene near the end that is classic junk Spielberg.  The kid who loves explosives can’t get his lighter to ignite at the proper moment, which is milked as a suspense point.  Fortunately, Abrams doesn’t drag it out interminably.  Please note that ET’s “death” and the Christopher Lloyd’s endless fumbling at the top of the bell tower in Back to the Future are far worse.


Yes, it’s cool that Abrams really shot this in anamorphic Panavision.  There are a few dozen of us who actually understand this.  However, the photography in general is pretty mushy and indistinct, which probably means the digital intermediate was not done well.  Furthermore: “Yes, JJ, we understand that you love the blue Panavision lens flares.  We get it.  Please don’t do them in every night shot.  It gets old.”

Abrams does an admirable job of fluid camerawork, but some of his direction is a little too precious and brings attention to itself.  It’s faux-Spielberg, and it’s the one area in which he fails to live up to the standard.  Spielberg is a master at setups, and Abrams is simply very good.  He’d be better if he tried to be less flashy.

For some reason, it was seen as necessary to shoot Noah Emmerich’s acne scars to look as bad and deep as possible, in the classic Dirty Harry tradition.  Can we move past the tired idea that flawed face equals flawed character?  For heaven’s sake, folks, these guys should start a union: “Pockmarked actors for stock movie villains.”


Most of the reviews compare Super 8 to the Spielberg “classics” that inspired it, and many have said, patronizingly, that it’s a nice effort, but the old ones are better.  I disagree.  Super 8 is actually better than many of the early Spielberg films.  I hope he watches and takes some hints from it.

9 thoughts on “Spielberg Without the Schmaltz”

  1. I kind of use to be a spielberg fan.. but there something about him that dose not let me into him.. I did like super 8.. but not my favorite movie.. I think film maker need to rebel some of Spielberg style.. I can relate to you Dr. Film.. I did not like matrix (1999) I did not like avatar (2009).. and its nice not to be apart of the mainstream. and I liked your review of Super 8.. thanks…

    1. I’d love to be part of the mainstream, but I’m a part of the mainstream in 1932, I think. Avatar was great the first time I saw it, when it was called Aliens, Dances with Wolves, and Gorillas in the Mist. I also thought that The Matrix was highly derivative and made little sense. I have no problem with “popcorn movies” being just for entertainment, but I do object when the studios seem to think they can recycle ideas and skimp on plots, and no one will notice.

  2. First , I think you should have put a ‘spoiler alert’ at the top of this blog post.

    I liked Regarding Henry. I also liked Hook. which you disliked and while I agree that it has some of the schmalzy father bit, I think one reason you don’t appreciate that sort of thing is that you have experience as a son – but not as a father. It means something different to be a dad – and schmalzy or not, Hook. hits that target successfully, speaking as a dad. (The skateboard ramps were stupid though.)

    Also, you have the wrong movies on Avatar. – 😉 It is actually a total remake of Disney’s Pocahontas. .

    1. I haven’t seen Hook, Brooks, so I don’t know. The problem I have with Spielberg’s dads is that they are often not present and we pine about that for most of the film. I think I didn’t spoil the film at all, because I really didn’t give anything away past the 2/3 mark.

    2. Actually, I think Avatar is ALL those movies. 🙂 Not sure why you went off on Hook, since Dr. Film didn’t even mention it. I’m also not sure why you have to be a dad to “appreciate” the negative or incompetent or, most accurately, one-dimensional way Spielberg sometimes presents parents (not so in this film; these characters have some depth to them.) Anyway, I certainly enjoyed this movie; and happily I was convinced that was approximately 1979, for the sets and costumes and speech were right (okay, a few VERY minor misses, not worth mentioning. I’m a historian, I can’t help noticing.) The only real complaint I have is the train wreck; I mean, it went on and on and on,with multiple cars sailing high into the air, which is simply not how it happens. Maybe with a Japanese bullet train, not with a lengthy freight going perhaps 50mph. But the characters were real, and the kids were very believable.

  3. I liked Spielberg when he was more concerned with making great movies than with being a great filmmaker. Schindler’s List is one of those films that makes me feel mentally and morally tainted if I criticize it.

  4. I just don’t get this critical criterion of film excellence based on kid actors acting like real kids. Who the hell wants to see real kids on the screen? The scene where they are all jawing at a diner, talking over each other, throwing food and not saying anything more intelligent than “Dude” had me cringing. I felt like I was babysitting my 14 yr. nephew and his moronic buddies. This is not why I go to the movies.

    Kids are only interesting on screen when they can take direction (Jackie Coogan) and recite well-written lines without sounding like they graduated from Soap Opera U. (Our Gang). In this case, Elle Fanning was terrific in the film. She is not a real kid. She is a real good actress who can convincingly play a kid from the wrong sides of the track. The rest of the cast of kid actors were OK when they had a script to parrot, but they should never be allowed to ad-lib dialog. Nothing interesting or good can come from such a directorial decision.

    1. I’m with you Eric….er, sorry…..Dr. Film. I never really cared for E.T. as a whole. I do like the imagery with the silhouette of the bike soaring past the full moon but the kids were all too coy for me. I was in my 20’s when it first came out and I felt then that it was too much kiddie fare for a Spielberg production. Give me Indy, JAWS or a PVT. RYAN any old day.

      By the way, since you’ve never watched HOOK….continue to stay away! Spielberg fills the roles of the Lost Boys with all of those irritating kids from THE GOONIES.
      ….Just torture….

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