I once knew a guy who hated Steven Spielberg. In his opinion, the Godfather of the Blockbuster was everything that’s wrong with contemporary cinema, the man that built the machine that each summer churns out reel after reel of empty, soulless images at 48 frames per second that the stinking masses will fork out obscene amounts of cash to view whilst mindlessly chewing popcorn like cattle, laughing at every fart joke and cheering as the body count climbs and their IQ falls.
Or something. He never really elaborated on why he didn’t like him. Maybe he just didn’t think his films were very good. But either way, Super 8 is exactly why he’s wrong.
Yes, Spielberg invented the summer blockbuster, and yes, he hasn’t made a good film for a long while, but director JJ Abrams recognizes what was special in that early Spielbergian style – the one found in ET, The Goonies, Stand By Me and Close Encounters of the Third Kind – and pays homage to it in a loving and reverential way.
All the markers of a Spielberg movie are there – it’s set in a small, working class Ohio town in which a young boy and his close-knit group of friends spend their time making amateur films. The boy’s just lost his mother suddenly and his deputy-sheriff father is more distant than ever, when he and his friends witness a catastrophic train crash that they think might not have been an accident. Soon, the military is investigating the crash, all the dogs are running away, and the strange cube that they found in the accident is acting very strangely.
To be honest, there’s absolutely nothing about the first hour or so of Abrams’s film that distinguishes itself from a Spielberg classic beside his copious and incredibly irritating use of lens flare. It has the exact look and feel, right down to the eighties setting. In this case, though, originality is overrated. A particularly stunning early scene at a train station is as tender and bittersweet as it gets, the waves of nostalgia and joy coming thick and fast until they’re almost completely overpowering. Spielberg’s style was manipulative, yes, but it takes a certain alchemy and skill to tug at the heartstrings in such a thorough and life-affirming way, and Abrams pulls it off here with aplomb. It’s hard to overstate the joy I felt watching those early scenes where the kids are just hanging out and making movies – I was sitting there with a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes, purely due to the tenderness and love that the film was taking in telling it’s story. The young cast is terrific, too, especially Elle Fanning and Joel Courtney, who makes a stellar first impression in the lead role.
It’s a shame that when it leaves the kids behind to look at the bigger picture, it becomes somewhat of a rote monster movie. It’s not that it doesn’t keep having those moments, and I’m not convinced that the introduction of aliens and shady military secrets necessarily smothers the films tenderness, but the film does lose it’s focus, often forgetting that aliens only really work when they feed the gentle coming-of-age tale in the film’s centre. Abrams creates a bunch of characters that we care about, then abandons them in favour of characterless plotting and loud set-pieces. Luckily, he pulls it back before it becomes too dire – the film’s climax is as tearjerking and epic as they come – but it’s a shame that the film wastes so much time explaining things when the specific details of what’s going on isn’t nearly as important as the emotional effect it has on the characters.
Despite these quibbles, though, I’d recommend it strongly to anyone who came along. And I’d insist they saw it at the cinema, not just because it’s still a good film, but because it’s a good blockbuster, in an age when blockbusters are in dire straits. Nowadays, the James Camerons and Tim Burtons and Michael Bays of the film business, not to mention the executives who give them the green light, are absolutely convinced the spectacle trumps story as though the two are mutually exclusive. Super 8 absolutely proves otherwise, and if we all fill those seats that it’s designed to fill, then maybe we’ll get summers that are filled with moments like that one at the train station. Super 8 is derivative, yes, but its building blocks – character, emotional depth, warmth – make it seem like something wholly unique in today’s market. I hope that one day Abrams will make something so lovely in his own voice, but for now, I can’t think of anyone I’d rather see being ripped off on the big screen.