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.