Imagine, if you will, that a basketball player knocks a pass from the opposing team towards his own basket around the free throw line (those who know nothing about sports may want to skip a paragraph or two). He takes off in a dead run, gets control of the ball around mid court and is dribbling full speed towards his own basket, with no one remotely close to him. He knows he's going to dunk it - there's really no other option.
But as you're watching this, you just have this gut feeling that he'll miss the dunk. It's too easy. Athletes thrive on adversity and there is no adversity in a fastbreak dunk. He'll start to think about what will happen if he misses the dunk. What will his excuse be? That he was too open? So what does end up happening? I don't know. Let's ask Ron Artest.
Sometimes slam dunks are just too obvious. And that's exactly how I feel about Super 8.
Look, I know Super 8 came out roughly 328 years ago (in pop culture time) but humor me and just hop in the Delorean all the way back to June 10 so we can pretend this post is still relevant.
Until Roman Polanski makes a movie about child molestation, there will never be a more perfect coupling than J.J. Abrams and a Spielbergian monster movie dripping in nostalgia. Almost everything Abrams has been involved in up to this point has been screaming that he wants to do this movie.
The first half of Lost season one (one of the very few times Abrams was actually closely involved with the show) plays kind of like Super 8-lite. There are adults and children dealing with their familial issues while the supernatural plays out in the background. The supernatural isn't the foci of the drama, it's merely the impetus.
During Abrams 2007 "Mystery Box" presentation to the TED Conference, he spoke of why Jaws is one of the best movies ever (fastforward to 9:08 in the video)
He said it's not because of the suspense or the terror of a massive, prehistoric shark. It's because Spielberg knows how to insert one scene between father and son that establishes that everything on the screen matters. There is a very fine line for cinematic characters between human being and shark chum, and Abrams clearly gets that.
Abrams understands everything he says in that TED Conference both intellectually and emotionally. And he's proven it he knows how to demonstrate that in summer movies like Mission Impossible 3 and Star Trek.
J.J. Abrams not only respects and loves Steven Spielberg's work but he understands it. He's the one man in the world who would not only want to recreate E.T more than anyone but he's also probably the only person who could.
So does it work? Do you need me to post the Ron Artest clip again? No, of course it doesn't work. How could it? Super 8 is far too close its own filmmaker's comfort zone to do or say anything meaningful or affecting.
It looks like a J.J. Abrams movie, which is to say quite visually impressive (I don't even mind the lens flare). The acting is very good, and in the case of Elle Fanning spine-tingling good. The action is solid, and the creature in question is actually quite an interesting creation. The script isn't even overly terrible, despite some awkward dialogue.
But despite every reason why it should, Super 8 just doesn't work. The emotional arcs don't hit. And it might be because we know they're just that: arcs. It feels pre-determined and false. Abrams may have gotten both emotional storytelling down to such a science that it comes across as predictably scientific and cold.
To a certain extent, all characters in summer blockbusters and Abrams' movies are loosely drawn archetypes. But Super 8, which is so invested in nostalgia, should not rely as heavily on archetypes and outright cliche as it sometimes does.
Super 8 couldn't possibly fail and that's why it predictably did. J.J. Abrams was in complete control of the ball in Super 8. Every possible aspect was pointing to a slam dunk and he clanged it off the rim. He'll bounce back, presumably when his hero isn't looking over his shoulder as a producer. It's easier to slam home that dunk when your girlfriend isn't watching from the stands.
Until then, here are more missed dunks.