I just saw Super 8, a film with Steven Spielberg’s name on it as producer, written and directed by JJ Abrams. While Abrams has amassed an impressive resume (as a writer, producer, director or combination thereof for Armageddon, Regarding Henry, the 2009 Star Trek, Cloverfield, Mission Impossible III, and the brand-new Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol), it feels like Abrams’ tribute to Spielberg.
Start with the simple fact that this is a film about making film. When I think about it there are an immense number of films about film-making. There are films like Singin’ In the Rain, or Sunset Boulevard that invoke various aspects of the Hollywood film industry. I can’t recall one that framed a larger action with such a humble frame-work.
The super 8 medium is not to be confused with the big-budget CGI-filled products one finds at the Cineplex. One points the camera, hopefully mounted on a tripod, because without a steady-cam you get a very messy finished product. If you’re not careful your film is gone before you know it. As I watched I was reminded of the current crusade to preserve film-stock, spear-headed by Martin Scorsese. Spielberg is also prominent in this movement. I can’t help but think that film preservation and the irreplaceable treasure of film stock is a key subtext of Super 8.
I want to take a moment to list echoes I heard of Spielberg films.
- At least three Spielberg films come to mind with references to extra-terrestrials, namely ET, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and War of the Worlds. While we’re at it, allow me to state up front that I never liked ET, a film that I found very grandiose in its mission to be great, particularly John Williams pompous pounding score at the conclusion when Spielberg blasts us with the film’s self-importance. Close Encounters, in contrast, is as sweet and delicate at the end as ET is pretentious. As in Close Encounters we see machines spontaneously start up, and as in both films, we again watch an alien vessel ascend majestically into the sky. As in War of the Worlds we watch the collapse of the social contract, people pushed beyond neighbourly limits by fear. And as in Close Encounters, some of the authorities issue bogus evacuation instructions to a gullible populace who are manipulated without scruple. And the labyrinthine military apparatus is also back once more, as in Close Encounters and ET. As in War of the Worlds we expect to encounter death in the alien corridors.
- Jaws is not just about sharks. We watch an overmatched bureaucrat struggling manfully to reconcile truth with responsibility, pressured by his town and charged with protecting his friends, family and neighbours. We see the same dynamic again, complete with the questions of conspiracy, freedom, and corruption.
- Empire of the Sun shows us a child struggling to survive in a place where civilization has collapsed. In that case it’s a prison camp during WW II, but the resonances are powerful.
- ET and Hook call for extraordinary ensemble performances from groups of children. In both films, as in Empire of the Sun, we see some kind of rupture between children and adults, leading to some kind of break-through or reconciliation. While I complained about ET above, and Hook too has heavy-handed moments, I love Spielberg’s ambitions.
I don’t want to say any more for fear of spoiling the film for anyone seeing it. But the funniest thing is to recognize that the trailer profoundly misrepresents the film. Yes it has scary and suspenseful moments. But it’s also a meditation on film, as the children making their film continually mirror the bizarre discourse of cinema. We look at their reality through several lenses, none of which are reliable. But cinema is simply another way of thinking about life.
Yes it’s true we’re in a peculiar kind of discourse, where the gender balance is crazily out of whack, whether in the gang of boys with a token girl in their midst, or the soldiers and police stomping through a testosterone-heavy world. Abrams’ films seem to be like that (thinking of Armageddon for instance), colossal playgrounds full of overgrown boys with overgrown toys.
But the absent female is perhaps the most important element of the film. I am not spoiling the film if I tell you that the story concerns a boy whose mother has died, a boy clinging to a necklace she left behind as a kind of magic talisman that figures in the town’s struggle for redemption.
Another thing i totally love about this film is how much happens that we can’t quite see on the screen. In a film about film, how wonderful that the story rarely gives us a clear view of anything, from the opening train-crash on; and that by the way, was my inspiration to post this review without any photos or video, in a quiet echo of the film. The strength of this film is not the CGI or the effects but the ensemble playing of the children, and how much we care about each of them. At one point the child doing makeup on the film-within-the-film picks up his kit containing fake blood, calling attention again to the artifice of film. While Super 8 is still a big budget film with several huge set-pieces, it’s most powerful in what’s left to the imagination. I love that it makes us believe often without seeing anything clearly.
There, I don’t think I’ve really given it away.