SPIELBERG THEN AND NOW
Review by Joel Frost
One thing to say of Steven Spielberg: no matter how many great films he’s been involved in, whether as Director, Producer, or Writer, arguably his most major impact on the American film industry has been as one of the main creators of the modern summer movie; that beast we know well, the otherworldly thing that lands with a bang in theaters around May, and often doesn’t leave until August. It usually has explosions, aliens, chases, and kids. It comes with a big price tag, and is rarely seen at other times of the year. Sure, there will occasionally be a bombastic “event” film or two around Thanksgiving or Christmas, but Memorial Day always heralds the imminent arrival of that specially effected beast that seems most comfortable in an air-conditioned theater, fed on soft drinks and candy. Multiplexes have been constructed to house these monsters, and every year, millions of people shufle in droves to have a close look at this year’s version of Indiana Jones, E.T., Close Encounters, Jaws, Jurassic Park. Steve’s buddy George Lucas deserves a great deal of credit for the creation of the monster, but Spielberg has been more prolific, dynamic, and creative over the years. George found the body parts, but Steve brought the thing to life.
Indeed, way back in the mid-to-late 70’s, it was really just these two cats who were making the kinds of films that we’ve all come to consider the right fare for a summer’s eve viewing. “Jaws” and “Star Wars” and “Raiders of The Lost Ark” begat sequels and imitators, with each summer bringing more expensive, louder, bigger, and often more vapid offerings from other directors and studios who recognized the public’s thirst for such libation.
“Super 8” is in many ways the perfect explanation of this phenomenon. JJ Abrams, perhaps the best current film-maker to follow in the footsteps of (early) Lucas and Spielberg, brings us his version of the summer movie as a nostalgic piece that encompasses essentially all the most obvious elements of the genre. There are the kids from E.T.. There are the Government villians. There are the explosions and chases. There’s the thing from another planet.
It’s not too hard to note, through the prism of “Super 8”, what’s been lost in the 35 or so years since the beginning of the modern summer blockbuster trend began. The early films included a kind of innocence, wonder, and fear that hadn’t been tainted by imitation. It’s an easy point to make that “E.T.”, “Jaws”, or “Back To The Future” carry with them a sense of amazement that is cultivated in large part by the way the central characters deal with the wild and unexpected circumstances that they encounter. Maybe it’s an old, jaded sensibility that thinks the Shia LaBeoufs of the world are not quite as adept at such emotional conveyance upon falling into cahoots with a Transformer (or alien, or whoseewhat), but it seems the years and years of bigger budgets, the bigger the need to out-do last year’s big thing, the desire for a more powerful enemy have all contributed to what makes most boom-bastic pics these days not resonate in the same way as the early incarnations of their copied ideas.
JJ Abrams is a child of Spielberg and Lucas, for sure, but he’s also quite aware of, and somewhat entrenched in, where things are today with this whole business. “Super 8” is his love-note to the masters, his way of trying to capture a little of what has been lost along the way. He is successful in exactly that; capturing a little of it.
“Super 8” introduces us to a pack of tweeny scamps who are on the cusp of innocence and, well, a bit less innocence. In obvious, intended nods to “The Goonies” and “E.T.”, we see these children living their lives next to and around the more serious and occasionally sad lives of their parents. The kids are shooting a movie about zombies, and they accidentally witness and film part of a catastrophic train crash in their small midwestern town. This sets off a chain of events involving an alien who just wants to get the heck home, and the military folks who invade the town in order to try to keep the critter from doing just that. One of the kids, Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney), has a deputy cop for a Dad, Jackson (Kyle Chandler). Joe’s Mom, Jackson’s wife, was recently lost to an unfortunate factory accident. Joe feels somewhat abandoned by his father who, for his part, seems to have buried himself in his job. Soon, though, his seriousness about that job proves valuable to the endeavor of keeping the town, and his son, safe from the Government and the Alien. Between those two, it’s hard to say who everyone ought to be more afraid of.
It’s in that ambiguity that Abrams (who wrote and directed “Super 8”) has managed to tie the head of his beast to its tail and trot in a clever (but not exceptionally graceful) circle. Since “Super 8” is so clearly an homage to the genre, and particularly the early films of the type, all parts of it can be understood in that context, rather than simply in the context of the film itself. “Super 8″’s alien could not be an entirely nice guy because then you’re making “E.T.”. “Super 8″’s alien couldn’t be just a bad guy because then you’re making, well, any number of such films. You have your alien, you have your Government guys, you have your scary world of adults, and the kids have to find a way around, or through it all.
The central question in all of this is, of course, does “Super 8” succeed? It’s a fair question, since Abrams has obviously given himself the specific assignment of making a send-up of a sort of film, much as Spielberg and Lucas did when they made “Raiders of the Lost Ark”. That film is an unqualified masterpiece, while “Super 8” is, well, a whole lot of fun. In an age when the average summer movie is something of a ghost of a ghost, “Super 8” is something of a shimmering apparition. If you’re a person who knows and loves most of the films that “Super 8” references, chances are you’ll find some, or a lot, to love about it. It certainly has its charms, and I can think of lots worse to do with a couple of hours than let my mind slip back into that comfy, tingly place that I remember fondly from trips to the theater as a boy. Some times a summer movie tries to barge right in, but “Super 8” asks politely. So what the heck.
Not that there aren’t plenty of explosions in “Super 8”. Again, JJ Abrams has one foot firmly placed in 2011. His other foot does, however, find a nice solid place in the past.
Riley Griffiths, Gabriel Basso, Zach Mills, Ryan Lee and (especially) Elle Fanning bring a lot of fun and some weight to the roles. As an ensemble, they’re excellent. It’s refreshing to see kids run around and curse in their burnt-orange shirts, in that 70’s-80’s way, for one thing. The playful chaos of this group of friends is the heart-light of “Super 8”, and it’s strong.
Directed by: J.J. Abrams
Release Date: June 10, 2011
Run Time: 112 Minutes
Distributor: Amblin Entertainment, Paramount Pictures