The subtleties of Super 8
J.J. Abram’s Super 8 makes tribute to movie genres of the past.
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In this column, we highlight films that have directly or indirectly inspired the most cherished and popular movies of contemporary cinema. We will discuss the antecedents of a popular movie in a reversed chronological order— working backwards through film history. To kick things off, we will do J.J Abrams latest hit, Super 8.
Abrams is best known for helping to create the TV shows LOST, Alias and Fringe, and for directing the latest Star Trek movie. He’s a filmmaker whose work falls firmly within the sci-fi and thriller genres and, at first glance, Super 8 is no exception. It’s an unabashed tribute to monster movies and science fiction, and employs all of the pulpy tropes that have popped up in his earlier work: aliens, government conspiracies, secret military operations, explosions, etc. What distinguishes Super 8 from his earlier work and sci-fi/thriller conventions is its setting—1979 Ohio—and its main cast. Children, not adults, are the main protagonists of the story, and we see the events of the movie through their unique perspective.
The Goonies (1985)
Steven Spielberg produced both Super 8 and The Goonies, and both films share a lot of DNA. Both movies revolve around a group of teenage best friends who, in their quest for adventure, get into a plot that is way over their heads and maturity level. Super 8 and The Goonies both portray the early teenage years candidly and entertainingly, capturing how 13-year olds talk to each other and relate to one another. While no one in Super 8 fills the big shoes of Chunk and the Truffle Shuffle, the pyromaniac 12-year old is a pretty worthy successor.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind / ET (1977/1982)
Abrams is clearly an admirer of Steven Spielberg, and admits that Super 8 is heavily indebted to Spielberg’s films—specifically those that were released around the time that Super 8 is set. Close Encounters and E.T., two of Spielberg’s most famous films, contain much of the same spirit and share some of the same narrative twists and turns as Abram’s film. Visually, Super 8 looks like it could have been a part of Spielberg’s body of work, with fluid camerawork and wide, beautiful compositions with a lot of activity within the frame. More importantly, both directors share a thematic sensibility.
Whether or not you respond to their movies, Spielberg and Abrams are sentimental and optimistic filmmakers: their enthusiasm for their work shines through the best of their films. The enthusiasm that Joe (the protagonist of Super 8) and his friends have for filmmaking echoes Richard Dreyfus’ obsession with outer space in Close Encounters, and Henry Thomas’ friendship with E.T. Spielberg and Abrams’ characters embrace their obsessions to the very end, even at the risk of danger, alienation or death. An undeniable sense of mortality hangs over all three films. And yet Super 8, Close Encounters and E.T. are all hugely entertaining blockbusters with aliens and special effects and everything else you’d expect from a good summer movie. Abrams’ ability to combine spectacle with a sense of what sets him apart from someone like Michael Bay and truly links him with Spielberg.