Letter From The Editor - Issue 59 - October 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
At The Picture Show
June 2011

Certificate of authenticity

With 'Super 8,' Abrams wears his Spielberg nostalgia on his sleeve, with fantastic results

Super 8
Paramount Pictures
Director: J.J. Abrams
Screenplay: J.J. Abrams
Starring: Joel Courtney, Kyle Chandler, Riley Griffiths, Elle Fanning, Ryan Lee, Ron Eldard, Noah Emmerich and Glynn Turman
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 52 minutes
Opened June 10, 2011
(out of four)

To the untrained eye, a forged Picasso will look virtually identical to the genuine article. In fact, a really good one can fool even a trained eye. Scholars and curators have certainly been fooled a time or two. But regardless of authenticity, those forgeries are still impressive in their own right, no? Not just anyone can replicate a master with such precision.

Which brings us to J.J. Abrams' Super 8. Yes, it is the old-fashioned, nostalgic Spielbergian homage we all expected (and hoped) to see. It is a stroke-by-stroke distillation of its influences, a meticulous facsimile - and, as it turns out, a damn good one. Let's face it - every movie is a combination of countless other movies, but if all of them were as lovingly and carefully constructed as this one, Hollywood would be a better place.

In many ways - certainly its basic formula and intentions - Super 8 feels like the Spielberg/Stephen King collaboration that never was. The most commonly observed reference points are E.T., Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Rob Reiner's Stand By Me, and that trifecta indeed gives a pretty good idea of what Abrams is going for.

The difference between those movies and this one, of course, is the basic matter of inspiration.. With Spielberg's early classics (especially the two mentioned above), it felt like he was spilling his guts onto celluloid. In the case of Super 8, it's more like Abrams is attempting to recapture and replicate the essence of what those movies were - what they meant to him and to us. In other words, it's nostalgia for childhood on one hand, and nostalgia for movies about childhood on the other.

In that sense, Abrams is more along the lines of Tarantino than Spielberg - although without quite the inventiveness and imagination to subvert and combine and twist all the movies/genres to which he's affectionately tipping his hat, as Tarantino does so effortlessly.

On that same note, this film is, as much as anything else, a celebration of movies themselves - and the act of making movies, which Abrams sees as a gloriously childlike experience. His child heroes in Super 8 are making a movie of their own - which in itself is an homage to George Romero's zombie movies. (The film is set in 1979, a year after Dawn of the Dead premiered.)

Every kid has their role(s) on the crew - among them, the writer-director, Charles (Riley Griffiths); the special-effects guru/pyromaniac, Cary (Ryan Lee); the leading man, Martin (Gabriel Basso); the lighting technician/cameraman, Preston (Zach Mills); and the reluctant ingenue, Alice Dainard (Elle Fanning), who doubles as the object of affection for our lead (and the faux-film's makeup specialist), Joe (Joel Courtney).

Naturally for any Spielberg (or faux-Spielberg) movie, the kid's got some parent issues. His mom recently died in an on-the-job accident, and his dad, the town deputy (Kyle Chandler), is taking the full-time paternal reins for the first time.

He and Joel don't really understand each other; he expects his son to want to spend his summer at baseball camp just like he did at his age, when Joel would rather build model trains and spend his days and nights moonlighting as a guerilla filmmaker with his friends. Needless to say, Dad doesn't quite get it.

When Joel and Co. sneak out to go film one night, they happen to be witnesses to a massive train crash (an impressively choreographed one, I might add) that, in the ensuing days, the government and military seem to have just a bit too much interest in.

Just what was it that was making all that racket in one of the train cars just after the crash? And what about all those Rubik's Cube-looking objects littering the ground? And why are metal objects spontaneously disappearing across the town? And what about all the disappearances - both human and canine - that nobody (least of all the government) seems able (or willing) to explain?

Oh, and one more thing; The kids' 8mm camera that tipped over during the crash - it didn't happen to catch any footage that may shed some light on this mystery, did it?

Abrams builds all these pieces with such care. And he shows the same deft hand with his young cast, which is one of the film's most impressive accomplishments. Super 8 is completely driven by the child actors, who have terrific chemistry and handle the script's humor and emotional ups and downs like pros.

Courtney, as the leading man boy, has an unaffected, naturalistic style and an undeniable screen presence; and I can't say enough about Elle Fanning (continuing to build on strong performances in Somewhere, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and others), who's more talented than her sister, and I would argue is on the verge of being one of the best in the business, period.

Perhaps more than anything, Abrams has shown a gift for pacing that puts most current action/suspense directors to shame. In Super 8, he's balancing a lot more elements than it may seem at first glance, and he packs it all tightly into a brisk, two-hour package without really short-changing anything.

Granted, there are a couple of points that don't make much sense, and/or aren't properly explained, and yes - to add to a chorus that is far too loud already - he overdoes it with the lens flares. (Which is silly and maybe even annoying, but come on, people - it's hardly a tragic flaw.) But the bottom line is he's crafted an earnest, affectionate and enthralling exercise in genre. Super 8 does about as good a job copying the beloved movies of our past as we could ask for.

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