Summary: A perfect remix of classic Spielberg, rising auteur J.J. Abrams crafts a truly effective film for the next generation.
Review: There’s no time more important to a filmmaker than childhood. Most great filmmakers discover their passion early in life, and they often spend that time trying to emulate their favorite works, looking for that elusive magic, that feeling, that means “cinema” in their hearts. Some give up, and go on to craft stories wholly different from their initial inspiration, but some stick to it, and succeed in making a spiritual autobiography, sometimes over the course of several films.
For Steven Spielberg, many of his greatest films pay direct homage to inspirations from his youth: ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ for the matinée serials, ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’ for both the French New Wave and Cecil B. Demille, ‘Jurassic Park’ for the creature features blessed by Ray Harryhausen. It is only natural that an auteur like Spielberg should provoke a kindred spirit of the next generation to emulate his films, and here the homage has the rare benefit of the inspiration’s creative involvement. With ‘Super 8’, J.J. Abrams does far better than imitate his idol; he makes an entry worthy of the Spielberg canon.
Some have reacted negatively to the iconographic and stylistic tributes J.J. makes to Spielberg, as if it is cheap or creatively bankrupt to so effectively capture this magical tone. The trouble is, as usual, a lack of perspective. At the time of ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’s release, it suffered some undue resentment from critics who felt that it was too much like the serials of yore, that it was a hollow, soulless exercise in something like “nostalgia porn”. As the serials have dimmed in popular memory, ‘Raiders’ has only grown as a premier action-adventure, revealing the trouble with the criticism. Such critics, then and now, are resisting the artist’s right to remix. Nothing is truly original, after all — it is important that artists, critics, and audiences understand that what matters is an effective remix, a work that is simultaneously familiar and fresh. Other auteurs, such as Quentin Tarantino or the brothers Coen, do works suspiciously similar to their inspirations with remarkable frequency, but they do not incur the critical penalties Spielberg and Abrams have had to endure, simply because the homage is more often obscure to the public. Both Spielberg and Abrams remix the greater weight of popular imagination, but in truth all these artists are doing the same kind of work.
When a viewer rejects the homage, he or she will find it difficult, or perhaps impossible, to appreciate the uniqueness of films like ‘Super 8’, the qualities that ultimately set them apart as worthy, standalone stories. ‘Super 8’, much like ‘Raiders’, is the return of the great adventure. It isn’t meant for the pessimistic adult mind. It’s meant, in the best possible way, for kids, or rather for the child in all of us. I was privileged to meet a grandmother and her two preteen grandchildren at the theater of my employ as they were about to see ‘Super 8’. When I praised the film and referenced Spielberg, the kids admitted they had no idea who he was, or if they had seen his movies. The grandmother was rather taken aback, but I was strangely pleased. It occurred to me, then, why Abrams made ‘Super 8’ at all — because Spielberg’s magic touch hadn’t transformed the minds of these kids, Abrams extended it to them. He’s taken what was old and made it new again. So in this way, it is simultaneously familiar and fresh, and some folks who grew up with Spielberg may never understand why. More power to those who do.
I love this film. It’s addictive. It thrills me, makes me laugh, makes me cry, makes me contemplate the past and future with great clarity. Just as ‘Raiders’ and ‘Close Encounters’ changed my life, from now on I’ll be seeing the world through the lens of ‘Super 8’.