Super 8 and the problem of secrecy
A few years ago, Robert Zemeckis created a bit of a stir when he defended the trailers of Cast Away and What Lies Beneath, both of which revealed crucial plot points, by saying that audiences really want to be told everything that happens in a movie. Moviegoers, he said, don’t like to be surprised; before they buy a ticket, they want to know exactly what to expect. And as depressing as it sounds, he was probably right. The fact is that trailers have always given away too much information—like the classic trailer for Casablanca, for instance, which shows Bogart shooting Major Strasser. It’s refreshing, then, when a director like J.J. Abrams refuses to disclose basic information about a movie like Super 8, out of a desire to protect its secrets. But it’s also a little disappointing to see Super 8 at last, only to discover that Abrams really had no secrets to protect.
I should preface all this by acknowledging that Super 8 is a film of considerable merits. It’s beautifully directed and photographed. The score by Michael Giacchino, who is rapidly becoming the most versatile composer in Hollywood, hits all the right notes. The cast, especially of younger kids, is uniformly appealing, and the script deserves a lot of credit for grounding the story in a detailed suburban canvas, even if most of the characters are affable stereotypes. For most of the movie, Abrams is emulating Spielberg in all the right ways—not simply his visual style and tone, but his interest in children and the lives of small towns. It isn’t clear how much of this reflects Abrams’s own sensibility and how much is just a skilled pastiche, but either way, it results in a movie that feels a lot more textured and humane than your average summer blockbuster. As a result, for most of its length, it’s a pleasure to watch, and it’s obviously the product of a lot of thoughtfulness and care.
Which is why it’s all the more underwhelming, at the end, to realize that all that atmosphere and ingenuity and mastery of tone was in service of a story that, frankly, could have been predicted in detail by anyone who had seen the marketing materials. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this—there can be something quite satisfying about seeing a familiar story cleverly told—but it makes the hype about the movie’s “secrets” seem more than a little silly. And after Cloverfield, which was infinitely more interesting as a trailer than as a movie, and Lost, which essentially abdicated its responsibility to resolve most of its mysteries, it raises serious questions about Abrams’s seriousness as a storyteller. Abrams has emerged as one of the most likable popular directors in a long time, but it’s hard to shake the sense, as I’ve said before, that his approach remains that of a gifted television writer and producer—and, I hate to say it, a shrewd marketer.
It might seem shortsighted to judge Super 8 by the standards of its marketing campaign. Ten years from now, I expect that it will still be watched and enjoyed—especially by kids—long after its teaser trailer has been forgotten. But the emphasis on secrecy has implications for Abrams’s future as a director that can’t be easily dismissed. Much as some researchers have recently argued that reason evolved, not as a means to the truth, but as a way to win arguments, it’s become increasingly clear that Abrams regards mystery, not as a means of protecting genuine secrets, but as a marketing strategy—which implies that he doesn’t understand how powerful a movie’s real secrets can be. A great director, like Spielberg, can tell us very clearly, before we’ve even entered the theater, what kind of movie we’re about to see, and then proceed to surprise us with revelations of plot and character. Abrams, for all his talents, hasn’t managed to do that yet. One day, perhaps, he will. But only if he gets past secrecy for its own sake.