Once upon a time, there was a world when movies focused on story, character and inventiveness. That was the world that many people claim was changed by George Lucas and Steven Spielberg with the one two punch of Jaws and Star Wars. Many cinema lovers have bemoaned the influence of special effects and self conscious references to pop culture and other movies that have come along since. While there were clearly thousands of movies to love prior to the end of the 1970s, they are loved as films of their time. Historical epics and personal dramas always seem dated, simply because styles change. It does not mean that the films are worthless, It means that they become pieces of their time and place. The end of the 70’s brought new styles, that were substantially more ambitious and at the same time simpler. Visualization could not go back to pre-2001 standards, but stories needed more personal and warmer ways of making those fantasies and reality based stories work. While Lucas pursued the technology that will eventually lead to virtual characters and scenery, Spielberg thrived in the storytelling of the everyday, using visuals as a counterpoint to the narrative on the screen, not as a replacement for it. The period between 1975 and 1993 is the era of the true Spielberg touch. Don’t get me wrong, I think Spielberg has made some amazing films since then, but they are stylistically different and of a new era. J.J. Abram’s “Super 8”, is a film that could fit into this Spielberg golden age with ease.
Many of the touchstones of a Spielberg film of those times are on display here. Children are the main protagonists, many are missing a parent or have a parent in the stages of arrested development. The movie plays in a small town that could easily be a Spielberg suburb. The lighting comes right from the template of such films as “Close Encounter of the Third Kind” and “E.T.”. All that is missing is a poignant theme and a dramatic fanfare from John Williams to complete the picture. That said, although the film harkens back to the classic period of Spielberg films, it is very much an Abrams film from the get go. The classic set ups are interrupted and highlighted by screen flare. The action sequences are intense and fast, without the slow build up of many of the Spielberg films. Characters are not always likable, even when they are our heroes. There is however one more important similarity in “Super 8” to those Spielberg classics. The child actors are one hundred percent dead on. The director has gotten performances out of the kids that no one else seems capable of doing these days. There are moments in the movie when the acting is so polished and right for the tone of the film, you might wonder what planet these kids came from. There is a scene where the female character has to play a character in a movie, and be so effective at performance that we forget we are watching a performance inside of a performance. The boys respond like real boys would in that situation. Later on there is the right amount of jealous petulance to make the friendship here seem real as opposed to artificial. The screenplay by Abrams works well but it has to be sold by the best ensemble acting by kids since “Stand By Me”.
Earlier, I said that the action scenes are quick, without the slow build of the old Spielberg. I don’t mean that the movie does not have any build up. Everything leading up to the train wreck is paced well and builds character naturally. But when the crash happens, there are no double takes, moments of pause to set up another stunt or build more tension. In “Jurassic Park”, the T-Rex attack takes ten minutes and has a dozen bits of business in it, “Super 8″ does it’s big set piece in half the time, without any heavy objects dangling precipitously, or any slowly deteriorating rope, glass, walls or trees. Tension in this movie comes from sudden surprises, and some dramatic violence that doesn’t feel like the old master. This is where you can see J.J. Abrams style is dramatically distinct from Spielberg’s. There were a bucket load of films produced by but not directed by Spielberg in the 80’s time-frame;”Gremlins”, “Goonies”, “Poltergeist” and “Young Sherlock Holmes” all come to mind. This movie feels like it could be part of that pack.
Anyone who loves movies should appreciate that a big part of this film is dedicated to young filmakers trying to put together a movie. Chuck, the kid directing the zombie movie within a movie, is conversant in story telling. He has an idea of what production value means and he cares about the performances of his friends, the amateur actors of his movie. Joe, is our main character and hero. He is a jack of all trades on the movie set and does whatever his friend needs him to do, the perfect production assistant. The idea of trying to accomplish something good with very little resources, is something all film students will recognize. The location is exactly right, it looks like it could be Ohio, without having to run to Canada to film the town. The music soundtrack is populated with songs that would be mixed very much the way they were in this film, a power pop rocker, followed by a disco themed New Wave dance tune and then throw in some ELO. Abrams is probably aping himself with these characters since he is of the right age and place to be one of them. His recall of the spirit of the times rings pretty accurately.
There are only a couple of reservations that I have about the film. I know it is a long standing practice to make the military the bad guy in science fiction films. Those movies like “The Day the Earth Stood Still” or even “E.T.” showed authorities as the real danger to us. Those dangers seem to occur not because of maliciousness but out of ignorance or a misguided way of trying to manage a problem. This movie makes the military, in particular the Air Force, evil. The colonel in charge is not just a bureaucrat, he is single minded and mostly indifferent to the people he swore an oath to defend. I don’t know how they could crack the nut of the story without having an organization like this in charge, but the reckless way the Air Force is referred to left me saddened that some kid somewhere is going to think that is what soldiers and airmen are like. It bugs me. The other element that I thought was a bit weak was the quickness of the resolution of the story. There are seeds planted of course, early in the film, but they germinate much too quickly in the last fifteen minutes of the film. Everything else was well developed, from the bitterness of the two dads, to the romance that is hinted at from the beginning. I think there is five more minutes of story needed to work out the resolution with the “secret” in the story and the adult characters. Other than these two things the movie is pitch perfect.
If you are a fan of science fiction, Steven Spielberg, action horror, and good story telling, this is a movie for you. The actors make it all work and the writer director has taken inspiration from his producer to bring us one of the best films from Hollywood this year. This movie works and will satisfy the movie goer and the film connoisseur at the same time. This is the most Spielberg like movie since Jurassic Park, and it comes from a writer-director we are seeing hit his stride in the last three or four years.