When Christopher Nolan’s Inception made a fortune at the box office last summer, while the usual lineup of sequels, remakes, reboots, and superhero vehicles failed to live up to expectations, there was a sudden burst of optimism that Hollywood might finally find room for a few more original stories in its annual summer smorgasbord. “Studio execs at Warner Bros., Paramount/DreamWorks, and Universal,” New York magazine’s Vulture blog reported optimistically, “are now madly pinging agents and managers with an uncharacteristic, desperate, and welcome request: Send us your fresh material!”
Maybe that fresh material is all in the pipeline, poised to hit theaters in 2012 or 2013. But on the evidence of this summer’s lineup, anyone hoping for a return to the days when blockbuster entertainment didn’t have to come “pre-sold” (as studio jargon has it) is a king of wishful thinking. Original comedy is alive and well, and the art-house scene is thriving. But when it comes to big popcorn movies, a genre that gave us Alien and Back to the Future and Indiana Jones and Jaws once upon a distant time, it’s just Transformers and Green Lantern and X-Men as far as the eye can see.
This season’s only original blockbuster — I mean it, literally the only one — is J. J. Abrams’s Super 8, an intermittently winning aliens-and-Americana flick that bears roughly the same relationship to the lost age of summer entertainment that Julian the Apostate’s paganism bore to the classical variety. It’s a well-meaning homage, rather than a new beginning, and its pleasures are nostalgic rather than immediate and visceral. It’s less a new thing than a reminder of what we’ve lost, and it half-succeeds as entertainment only to the extent that it evokes a host of better films.
Chief among those films is E.T., whose story Super 8 shamelessly recycles — with Steven Spielberg’s approval, I should note, since he serves as a producer. The settings are similar (Super 8 takes place amid the raised ranches and wood paneling of Carter-era suburbia), and the narrative elements are pretty much identical: a single-parent family (forged by sudden death, in this case, rather than divorce), precocious kids on bicycles, military scientists, and a mistreated alien who probably just wants to get back home. To be sure, Abrams’s alien is bigger and scarier than the original E.T., but then again he has (alas!) a bigger special-effects toolkit than the 1980s Spielberg ever did.
He also has one genuinely original idea: His gaggle of early-teen protagonists are also amateur filmmakers, and their quest to figure out what the heck is happening in their small town is interwoven with their equally important (and much more entertaining) quest to make a zombie movie. The would-be George Romero behind the camera is the pudgy, shouty Charles (Riley Griffiths), and our protagonist is his makeup-and-effects man, Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney), whose dad is the deputy sheriff and whose mom is recently deceased. Their team of yapping, geeky pals is supplemented by a lone female (Elle Fanning), whose acting talent elevates Charles’s wooden zombie-movie dialogue and whose loveliness makes Joe swoon.
The whole gang is filming a scene at an abandoned train station when the real science-fiction element kicks in. An Air Force train derails around them in a burst of digitalized pyrotechnics, and Something Big breaks out of its boxcar prison, unseen by the kids but captured on their still-running movie camera’s titular brand of 8-millimeter film. From this point on, the movie’s charming shaggy-dog element (the kids, their movie, and their angsts) is gradually crowded out by a predictable alien-movie plot. Some sinister military types sweep in, things go bump in the night, the town is evacuated, and then there’s a big reveal that probably cost a fortune but ultimately looks a lot like every other digitally conjured monster you’ve seen onscreen in the last ten years.
This arc will be familiar from previous J. J. Abrams productions, on the big and smaller screen alike. The wunderkind director is a slicker and more superficial Spielberg, with the master’s third-act difficulties (the ending is almost invariably the weakest part of any Spielberg movie) but without his humanistic wizardry. There’s a little more personality in this movie than in most of Abrams’s previous efforts, but the overall recipe is still the same: slick production values, successful tension-building, some heartfelt moments, and then an inevitable letdown when the magician has to show his cards.
A few critics have joked about Super 8’s ability to conjure up an unlikely haze of nostalgia around what may be the least fondly remembered moment in recent American history. But when Abrams’s movie works, it isn’t because its call-outs to “My Sharona” and Three Mile Island remind the audience of what it was like to be young in the age of stagflation and malaise. It’s because Super 8 reminds us that there was once a time, not so very long ago, when summer blockbusters were actually worth seeing.