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Let’s Talk Super 8: They’ve written the script, they’ve storyboarded their shots, now these kids are ready to film their own little horror movie on Super 8mm. Too bad a train from “Area 51“ crashes the set, unleashing an alien on their small town.
His real trademark, highlighted in several films, is the hero running from explosions in the middle of a massive action set-piece. Abrams did it with the pilot episode for Lost, with the airplane crash on the beach sequence. He did it with Tom Cruise in his edition of Mission: Impossible. The hero there runs along a bridge as jets bomb it, tossing Cruise into a car. The camera stays with the subject in an extended take with one camera, rather than the Michael Bay multi-angle multi-frame rate approach. In Star Wars he upped his trademark by including exposition while running from an explosion (with Finn and Rey on Jakku).
Here in Super 8, this trademark Moment is embellished for center stage. While the children film a movie, a train derails, crashing massively and exploding as they run alongside it. This isn’t a simple “Boom” either, it’s more like a series of “Big Bada-booms.” The effect of running alongside our small heroes while incredible danger threatens them is totally exhilarating.
THE SET-UP: It’s appropriate that Steven Spielberg produces (under his Amblin label) because Super 8 feels a lot like E.T. That classic 80s blockbuster focused on a little boy raised by his single mother. The hero was a child of divorce. In Super 8, it’s a single father instead. Divorce (or losing a parent) must feel like the end of the world to a kid. These two movies twist this into a metaphor with alien invasion literally threatening the end of the world. Not only is his style reminiscent of Spielberg’s, but Abrams also borrows story notes from one of the greatest visionaries of our era.
Super 8‘s story follows our lonely boy and his friends as they try and complete their masterpiece: a zombie flick shot on 8mm. One of his friends acts like a young Orson Welles, he has his vision planned to every detail. His other buddy is a trouble maker who likes firecrackers – so he heads up the pyrotechnics department. Their young enjanue is portrayed by Elle Fanning (the only one of these talented youngsters whose star continues to rise high). In the movie-within-a-movie, she plays a zombie. Abrams uses this group project to easily establish characters. Like Spielberg, he doesn’t talk down to the audience, or pander to the younger crowd. He portrays these kids realistically, and the story is better for it. They all have a Moment to shine, and all develop enough for us to root for them on this grown-up adventure. It almost feels like Stand By Me meets War of the Worlds.
Since this is a coming-of-age story, a little bit of romance comes into play. In a cute little Moment, while rehearsing a zombie attack, Fanning gets a little close to our lead actor. She’s really charming, even in Night of the Living Dead make-up. Admittedly, it’s the type of scene that makes you feel warm and fuzzy. (Now, forget I ever said that. Okay?) It’s quite obvious he’s crushing on her. While he thinks she may be going in for a kiss, she’s really aiming to tear out a chunk of his neck – in character, of course.
By the time these friends are filming their movie on location at a train station, we are fully on board with their story. This movie could have -just- been about their collaboration, and still probably be just as entertaining. Abrams is a incredibly talented storyteller. That Moment comes when the “young Orson Welles” hears a train coming. He gets excited. His little low budget amateur film could actually have a big budget scene. He yells out, “Production value!” And his friends know exactly what this means. It also gets the audience excited for them, since the earlier character work framed everything so well. The crew hops into action right away. The pressure is intense. They have to nail this scene or waste a priceless opportunity. That’s when it gets extra intense. A truck swerves up onto the train tracks, purposefully trying to stop this speeding bullet. The resulting crash is truly epic. This isn’t a simple explosion and it’s done either. It’s the “Big Bada-Boom”, like mentioned earlier. This is a wonderful sequence of destruction and peril, fused with mystery and horror… with fantastic production values.
Cinema Remembered: The wonder. Spielberg knew what that meant. It’s the magic of cinema. You may have felt it in ET or Jurassic Park. It’s the Moment when everything zones out and you are that character. You are totally amazed by what you see and what you feel. This rare occurence has been carefully tended to by only a handful of directors. Abrams gives you that feeling with Super 8.
The music really helps set a whimsical mood as well (check out the trailer above). Parts of this movie feel like magic, reminding us of the good old 80s family adventures, and focusing on forgotten words in contemporary society, like “believe” and “innocence.”
Super 8 is a real sci-fi treat. The alien may get you in the seat, but these characters and Abram’s staging will keep you there. Maybe you forgot about Super 8, but with Star Wars satisfying us nerds so well, maybe it’s time to Remember.
NEXT WEEK: We’re after the Golden Globes, and before the Oscars. There’s a lot of performance buzz in the media. Let’s look at one of the best: Robert DeNiro in Martin Scorsese’s TAXI DRIVER.