Super 8: A rose-tinted spectacle?

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JJ Abrams' alien adventure 'Super 8' plays like an extended tribute to Spielberg's early films, says Ben Walters

‘Relive the memories.’ This enticing invitation appears on in-house marketing material glimpsed inside a camera store in JJ Abrams’s new movie, ‘Super 8’. On the face of it, the film is an action-adventure story about kids and aliens, but it’s also a way of reliving the memories: memories, as its title suggests, of an analogue filmmaking culture whose time has passed; and memories of the iconic Hollywood output of a particular era, currently enjoying high-profile nostalgic appreciation from a number of directions.

Super 8’ is produced by Steven Spielberg but that fails to do justice to his influence on the film. Abrams delivers a sustained pastiche of the older filmmaker’s defining classics whose accuracy is matched only by its sincerity. Set in Ohio in 1979, it concerns ordinarily dissatisfied people – young families for whom bereavement and unemployment are the background noise of life – who are thrown into chaos by the arrival of extraterrestrial beings. In ‘Super 8’, it’s the derailment of a military train that hurls a group of adolescent friends into a world of aliens and cover-ups through which, yes, they learn what’s really important in life.

This, in other words, is the world of ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’, ‘ET: The Extra-Terrestrial’, ‘Gremlins’ and ‘The Goonies’ (all directed or produced by Spielberg) – the world of Abrams’s youth, recreated with careful attention to everything from modish south-western-American decor to a rust-and-citrus palette and just the right magic-hour lens flare.

Lens flare is the kind of thing that would get the attention of Abrams’s characters, who are filmmakers in their own right. The lead, Joe (Joel Courtney), is collaborating with his pal Charles (Riley Griffiths) on a zombie movie – a project treated with semi-professional gravity by the main duo and the friends they’ve roped in. The train wreck offers not only the path to high adventure but also prime opportunities for location shooting. As one of the gang notes: ‘Looks like a disaster movie, doesn’t it?’

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If much of the film plays out with the emotional engagement of the titles that inspired it, it’s unmistakably marked as a period piece by the clunkiness and complexity of analogue filmmaking compared to the shoot-view-distribute model of digital video. From the script work to the make-up to the shoot, ‘Super 8’ luxuriates in its appreciation of the artisanal elbow-grease of the celluloid labour of love. No surprise that this is how Abrams spent much of his youth – in fact, his adolescent Super 8 projects first brought him to the attention of Spielberg, whose own home movies the young JJ was invited to edit.

Abrams isn’t the only filmmaker of a certain age to take an interest in this era’s output. The other fantasy filmmaker whose reputation looms large is, of course, George Lucas, recent high-profile tributes to whose work range from the sustained ‘Star Wars’ pastiches of Seth McFarlane’s animated sitcom ‘Family Guy’ to ‘The People Vs George Lucas’, an indie film by Alexandre O Philippe that explores the often vociferous fan responses – both positive and negative – to Lucas’s space opera.

There’s a difference, however. Lucas’s world is resolutely fantastic, whereas Spielberg’s cuts across real life at an angle. It’s in this respect that ‘Super 8’ makes for a telling tribute to ’70s popular filmmaking: social commentary can be spied between its frames, as well as Spielberg and celluloid. Its industrial economic steel-belt context is an implicit rebuke to the rust belt that has been allowed to succeed it and the device of the heroic whistleblower – named Woodward, no less! – harks back to the post-Nixonian era of scepticism.

This, like its source movies, is a story in which adult authority is suspect and the military is associated with repression, confinement and fear, not to mention blowback; the key lessons are of forgiveness and endurance. Compare all that to, say, ‘Transformers 3’, in which the army is bluntly heroic and summary executions are the route to victory. ‘Super 8’ offers a parallax view – a perspective on today via an unsettled earlier period – that stops it being merely nostalgic. Sometimes they do still make them like that, after all.



Author: Ben Walters



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