When I saw 10 Cloverfield Lane (2016 – Dan Trachtenberg) I really liked it. It had fantastic central performances and it genuinely kept me guessing up until the final fifteen minutes. The tediousness of the final sequence almost, almost, ruins what has gone before. So why feature them at all. Why is there a need to tie an enjoyable movie so tenuously to a forgettable film from the previous decade? Are we that desperate that everything has to be a franchise.
J. Abrams produced 10 Cloverfield Lane. He made the decision to tie a standalone spec script called The Cellar into an established property in order to increase its chances of box-office success. It’s a mercenary move. Similarly, Super 8 was the result of shmushing together an alien invasion movie and an idea about children making home movies into one film. This is the reason why Abrams is a powerful player in Hollywood and not just another script doctor.
Because as a writer, he’s okay. He has a good grasp of character, and there is the necessary tidiness of plot that comes from mainstream filmmaking. His themes are digestible. But Abrams is a writer who is witty rather than funny. Anyone half-decent can write a witty line; movies are full of characters who sound the same and have razor sharp back-and-forths with each other. But funny? Funny, as in it goes beyond language funny… that’s another thing. This isn’t a slight; he’s a talented writer, miles better than many of his contemporaries. But there is no desire in him to write anything in the slightest bit dangerous.
(He is also susceptible to one of my least favourite tropes of script writing, the geek getting the hot girl. These are symptoms of the writer revealed. The geeks, often frustratingly, but safely awkward, are typically ‘nice’ guys, but in Hollywood, quite unlike real life, they end up with a considerably more attractive partner. And I get it. Because it’s true for these screenwriters. They were nerds in school who moved to Hollywood and married a beautiful actress. But it doesn’t quite ring true for a wider society.)
Despite opening on an image that could easily be the start of an episode of The Simpsons, Super 8 is a narratively comfortable story of childhood friendships. It is heavily indebted to, and nostalgic for, the films directed and produced by Steven Spielberg in the eighties. The only slight difference being that Abrams wants to explore our relationships with our fathers in a way that Spielberg had no interest in. By his third film, Abrams has a more sedate approach to directing. There still is an awful lot of needlessly intrusive lens flare, but Abrams is more content to pull back the camera, focus on long shots, and allow the dialogue sequences to play out within a landscape. Until the action scenes, where his habitual Dutch angles and swooping field of vision come into play.
But after three of these films, it becomes apparent that Abrams just doesn’t trust us as an audience. There are scenes in the film that move away from the children’s point-of-view, allowing us to clearly understand certain motives. It ensures we have easily identifiable bad-guys. There is no space in these movies for our imagination; everything has to be explained to us. It’s and unsubtle, and slightly insulting approach to movie making and makes us feel less like a communicant in cinema and more like a customer. Movies are meant to be magical. They’re meant to evoke semi-religious feelings inside us, as we participate in a whole other life, world or perspective. Abrams has little interest in this, and is content to spoon-feed us brief moments of enjoyment.
As I watch his films I do appreciate the gifts that he has. He is not a hack. But his movies are safe and contained. They never play in the theatre of our minds. Children ran out and played The Goonies (1985 – Richard Donner) or E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982 – Steven Spielberg) in their back gardens and local parks. No one could, even if they wanted to, play Super 8. There’s no space for imagining.