Summer Blockbusters: Spielberg Vs. Spielberg Vs. Optimus Prime

In a summer that was particularly lacklustre blockbuster-wise, marked by weak reboots of near-unknown superhero franchises and the final chapter of that gazillion-dollar budgeted, magic-themed posh school play known as the Harry Potter saga, two popcorn movies produced by a pioneer of the genre – yes, you guessed it, Steven Spielberg – particularly stood out. I’m talking about Michael Bay’s Transformers III and JJ Abrams’ Super 8, the former still baffling by its seemingly unfailing success growing with each further regressive sequel (bigger, louder and more dimensional) and the latter unexpectedly ending up as the critics’ darling (alongside, perhaps, The Rise of the Planet of the Apes) for the title of this summer’s most enjoyable teenage entertainment. It’s not that surprising given that Spielberg basically created the blockbuster concept in the late seventies along with his evil twin George Lucas (now a successful toy manufacturer I’m told), brushing aside the artistic ashes of the New Hollywood in favour of global mainstream dominance.

Autobots are no laughing matter.

Spielberg directed neither Shitformers nor Vintage Camera, however his credit as executive producer is printed just as big on each poster, proof that his name still carries relevance, enhancing Bay and Abrams’ blockbuster cred. It could also be because the influence of the spectacled bearded man is so blatantly obvious on both flicks that we may just as well attribute him their paternity – especially in the case of Super 8, a biographical pastiche of Steve’s childhood, re-contextualised in the suburban world of his early 80s classics (E.T, Close Encounters of the Third Kind) and the copycats they engendered (The Goonies, Stand By Me, etc.). Put simply, this summer the choice was between technoid Spielberg and vintage Steven.

Amongst film critics, appreciation of SS has been informed by an easy, convenient opposition: the dead-serious Spielberg on one side, with his edifying Holocaust dramas and WWII epics, schooling us like a well-intentioned history teacher on how fucking bad the XXth century was (with a side interest in filming slightly embarrassing slave narratives; The Colour Purple and Amistad, I didn’t forget about you), and on the other hand, the fun, kid-friendly Spielberg, the master of family entertainment with a penchant for benevolent aliens, whip-lashing archaeologists and sharp-toothed prehistoric creatures. Obviously, serious Spielberg must be frowned upon when kiddy Spielberg can be celebrated as an accepted form of nostalgia, but only in correlation with the release date of the film – the older the better – and the number of BMXes ridden by mopey kids in said feature (E.T definitely wins that one every time).

But see, this bipolar take doesn’t really work – where do you fit War of The Worlds in this? Minority Report? A.I? From the late-90s onward, Spielberg went all-heavy metal on us with a dystopian sci-fi streak, whose refrigerated, steely aesthetic has influenced many blockbusters since, including Transformers III (which stands in some ways as the apotheosis of that influence), while Super 8 is marketed as a reminder of sweeter, different times. How to make “sense” of this?

Fig. 1, in all seriousness. Click to expand.

If you have a quick look at my rubbish Word-powered diagram (Fig. 1 – the reason why I’ll never get a job at Wired), you can see that schematically, there’s roughly four dimensions, or two axes of Spielberg. The serious stuff can be divided into two genres, the historical and the sci-fi (usually thrown in with the kiddy-blockbustery category by most critics) and the fun stuff between retro serial fare (Indy) and the late 70s/early 80s golden run of aliens in suburbia tales (let’s include Close Encounters here). The dark futuristic theme came loaded with “maturity” and informed all his latest directed Sci-Fi features (how bleak was War of the Worlds?), which he compensated for with an alternating series of regressive, conservative period adventures (Catch Me If You Can, Indiana Jones IV and now The Adventures of Tintin, the inspiration behind “Indy” in the first place).

SS is still VERY fond of aliens – he even managed to shoehorn some into the latest instalment of the Indiana Jones franchise (where they definitely didn’t belong, as the kids in South Park said, and is credited as executive producer on the shambolic Cowboys & Aliens). The aliens are not exactly what they used to be though; they went from friends to foes. Aesthetically, this change also translated in their shape and “texture”, from organic, cuddly extraterrestrials to steely, post-Matrix war-machines and depressed androids; from a child-sized turd with a big red heart to a massive robot with door handles as nipples.

This is where Super 8 comes in handy as a kind of well-manufactured time capsule, holding up a mirror to what the blockbuster mastermind’s production has become, epitomized by the cynically perfect formula of Transformers III which combines the steely aesthetics of his darkish futuristic films and the dumbed-down action feature plots of today [1], while removing most of the heart and soul of his teen-friendly stuff in favour of a video-game desensitised detachment to form a remarkable weapon of mass distraction [2]. It’s not so much about good vs. evil, huggable Martians vs. Autobots, or even Elle Fanning vs. Megan Fox/whoever-that-blonde-model-with-the-huge-lips-is, but rather past vs. present Hollywood, old school Steven vs. modern Spielberg.

Let’s look at some key blockbuster ingredients present in both films, see how they differ and find out what they tell us about the state of the modern multiplex fare in line with the mutating audience the studios are now targeting.

"E.T.! What the hell do you think you're doing?"

1. The Main Human Protagonist:  One of Spielberg’s greatest ideas when he drew up the basic shopping list for a successful popcorn movie was to include a main character that would resemble and reflect in many ways the target audience. In E.T, it was a geeky teenager because, as Hollywood found out in the late seventies, robbing the kids of their pocket money is a much more lucrative business than putting the effort into making demanding “adult” entertainment (no, I don’t mean porn). Consequently in Super 8, we get an Elliot-lite to recreate that vibe. In Transformers however, it’s up to Shia Labeouf to provide the identikit of today’s fan of giant robots and cartoon adaptations: the shouty, materialistic man-boy. Whereas Joe in Super 8 makes amateur films, paints Warhammers and builds miniature trains, Shia is all about fast and flashy cars, “big boy pants” and envying everyone else’s money. Joe lives in symbiosis with his friends while Shia is a stubborn individualist. Creative dreamers vs. consumerist pricks, 12-years-old nerds vs. computer game brainwashed adolescents [3]

2. The Alien(s): I’ve mentioned this already, the organic vs. the metal, etc, but what about the benevolence? In Transformers, the Autobots are as much allies as enemies depending on which side they picked, but either way, they look absolutely belligerent, with oversized guns and blades the size of jet planes (need to compensate for a tiny muffler, Optimus?). Labeouf’s friend Bumblebee, which conveniently doubles as showy sports car/girl-trap, is meant to be just a clumsy robot-kid, but still looks badass and cold-blooded in combat. And let’s not start on Optimus Prime, who tears off the heads of his foes with his bare robotic hands before finishing them with a giant cosmic shotgun. In Super 8, the alien is bigger and meaner than E.T ever was – more like a smaller cousin of the Godzilla-like monster in JJ Abrams’ Cloverfield. It still ends up as a potential friend to the diminutive main character and foremost a victim of the earthlings’ cruelty – just as much as the autobots are “victims” of the lies of NASA and CIA (yes, Spielberg always loved his conspiracies). Conclusion: Hollywood aliens are still our friends from outer space, but display as much emotion and human empathy as Megan Fox on a good day, doubled with a very mainstream appetite for destruction.

Transformers III: Megan Fox (on a good day)

3. The Love Interest: This one will be quick: Elle Fanning, the rebellious girl-next-door providing twinges of nostalgia for the days of asexual puppy dolls VS. the blow-up dolls (brunette in TI & II, blonde in TIII), “[tokens] of reassurance for viewers revelling in a spectacle of cosmic, brutal, heavy-metal homoeroticism” (again, the brilliant A. O. Scott in the NY Times). Or further evidence of the oversexualization of our contemporary pop culture.

4. The Setting: a small factory town in Ohio, the honest houses of suburbia in Super 8. The skyscrapers of the megalopolis (Chicago in this instance) in Transformers III. With the clear impression that real people may actually live in the Super 8 neighbourhood, given the heavy accent on community (some hints to Jaws in the sheriff’s address to his distressed fellow citizen) when landmark buildings in TIII are only empty glass entities to be sacrificed on the altar of spectacle during the final fireworks, satisfying Bay’s thirst for building-violence and global catastrophe-porn. A post 9/11 affectation or just a sign of the times (see also Chris Nolan batophobia)? Moreover, the systematic destruction of historical monuments and constant revisionism of TIII display a certain contempt for the past, the packaged nostalgia that Super 8 tries so hard to sell us.

5. Abrams & Spielberg VS. Bay & Spielberg: one is looking back, the other ahead – no present tense here but entertaiment extremism on both side. The heart in Super 8 is an illusion: like Tarantino’s Kill Bill or Death Proof, it’s a slick, virtuosic pastiche, the filmic equivalent of a sparkling clean Motown sample on a hip-hop track – nice, comforting, but in the end, devoid of real soul. J.J Abrams is box-ticking with as much perfectionism deployed by Michael Bay to destroy every single lamppost in Chicago’s town centre. Sadly, Transformers III is the cinema of the future, of the 21st century – offering a slight upgrade on video games in terms of High Definition but also a braindead idea of cinema.

In both cases Steven, you became kind of heartless but remained ruthlessly, mechanically efficient. Just like the big Hollywoodian machinery, just like Optimus, bulldozing your way through pop culture.

An abrupt conclusion, perhaps, but this – like Michael Bay’s career – could potentially go on forever. “We’re gonna need a bigger boat post” some might say…

[1] …which consists of two acts of an hour each: Act I being the exposition of the main “characters” preparing for the forthcoming battle/Armageddon/space invasion, and Act II being a solid hour of mass destruction and explosions occurring during aforementioned battle/Armageddon/space invasion. Plain and simple. No twist, no development, nothing. Now enjoy the noise.

[2] Everything has been said about it in this sarcastically masterful NY Times review, where the key sentence is “I’m not judging, just describing.”

[3]  Another interesting sociological insight: Shia Labeouf, despite having saved the world twice, struggles to find A BLOODY INTERNSHIP. That’s how bad this recession thing is, man.

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