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Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Chris sees SUPER 8 and struggles to understand why he's so madly in love with it

The most singularly consistent quality possessed by Super 8 that I've heard from friends who have seen the film is that it is like a Rorschach test: different people are going to see different things in this movie. And always those friends pick a movie from Steven Spielberg's long career to describe Super 8: a film executive produced by Spielberg and written and directed by J.J. Abrams.

"It reminded me of E.T." "It was as scary as Jaws and Jurassic Park!" "Didn't you get a Close Encounters vibe?"

Yes to all of those and more. But having seen this movie two days ago and with it getting better and better the more that I think about it, I've come to the conclusion that I absolutely love Super 8 because, to me anyway, it gave me a feeling that I haven't felt watching a movie in a theater ever since The Goonies in the summer of 1985.

This is definitely a J.J. Abrams/Bad Robot movie. But it is also a film that has Steven Spielberg's handiwork all over it... and it is a beautiful thing to watch this story unfold and work its magic. When I saw that Amblin Entertainment logo, the one with Elliot and E.T. flying in silhouette, my inner geek started jazzing up like it hasn't in way too long. Because, this is a movie that many of us wondered if Spielberg was even capable of pulling off again.

Let me explain that. I met Steven Spielberg once. It was at the National Boy Scout Jamboree in 1989. Spielberg was there to inaugurate the Cinematography merit badge, and he also produced the jamboree's opening night show. I was our council's media correspondent: sending reports to newspapers back home and such. There was a press conference with Spielberg and we got to talk with him and... the guy was just a big kid. He even wore his Boy Scout uniform complete with Eagle Scout badge! And there was this light in his eyes as he talked about what was coming up with the Back to the Future trilogy and then how he first got into filmmaking. It was really quite something: the most successful movie director of our generation, bouncing up and down and off the walls like a kid in a candy store... and could anyone really blame him?

That was the Steven Spielberg that gave us E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial and Gremlins and Goonies, and later on Jurassic Park.

And then, Spielberg made Schindler's List.

He hasn't been the same as a filmmaker since. And I don't know how anybody could really blame him. Now, he did not get "worse" by any stretch of the measure. There was no decline in his creativity or artistic execution. But doing Schindler's List... and I don't know of any other way to put it... scarred the man. Broke something inside. It frightened that sparkly-eyed kid and made him run away. I thought that I could see that kid coming back when A.I.: Artificial Intelligence came out ten years ago... except for that ending. Spielberg before Schindler's List would have found an entirely different ending for that film. Spielberg after Schindler's List however...

...Well, as I said: nobody can blame him. And I'm not going to demand that Spielberg not grow as an artist. This, the man has certainly done, often literally right before our eyes. He should grow into his own, as each of us must with our lives.

But I gotta tell you: when I heard about how Spielberg was scouting locations in Poland for Schindler's List and how he found a gray puddle of debris near one of the death camps, and casually put his hand into it before realizing that those were the ashes of human bones...

...Just reading that, I knew that this most celebrated of American filmmakers had been made to lose a lot of innocence. And that nothing would be the same for him again.

Not I, or anyone else, should ask Spielberg to go back to "the way things were". We don't have the right and, I don't know how that's even possible.

But even so, just the same: I have missed the old Steven Spielberg. The man who made us believe that childhood friendship would always triumph over the bad guys, whether they be government agents or hostile creatures or both. The man who let everyone else know what those of us who grew up in the late Seventies on through the Nineties already knew: that there was always an adventure awaiting, right around the corner or down the street or even in the dark recesses of our own home.

Super 8 is a J.J. Abrams movie. But this is also a Steven Spielberg film. The kind that we haven't gotten in way, way too long.

Super 8 is a homage and a tribute to everything that we loved about Spielberg's movies back in the day. If there was one word that I would have to use to describe the tonal quality of this film, it would be "innocence". Joe and Charles and their friends: here we've a bunch of middle-school kids who spend their time making zombie horror films with Super 8 cameras and jury-rigged lights and audio and lots of schlocky make-up. They share a dream. Kids at that age, they can do anything and they know it and don't get in their way! For Joe Lamb (played by Joel Courtney) this is more than a collaboration with friends: it's how he loses himself from the grief of his mother, who dies in a work-related accident at the beginning of the film. For Charles Kaznyk (Riley Griffiths, who seems to steal the scene every time he's on-camera) it's about showing up older teenagers in a film competition. And for both it is a feeling of affection toward Alice Dainard (wonderfully played by Elle Fanning), for whom this Super 8 project is a brief escape from her hated father. Then there is pyrotechnician/pyromaniac Carey (Ryan Lee) and Preston (Zach Mills) and Martin (Gabriel Basso). And they all wind up at a train station on the edge of town late one night to shoot a scene (and also hopefully, as Charles is constantly demanding, "PRODUCTION VALUE!").

And by that point, I was so involved with these kids and their good-natured plot that I didn't remember that Super 8 is a movie about something going horribly wrong in a small Ohio steel-mill town. Indeed, it comes almost as complete surprise when an Air Force train speeding past the station hits a truck and derails, in what has to be the most spectacular train wreck in cinematic history.

And then...

No, I'm gonna hold off on saying much more. I only saw one trailer in the past several months leading up to Super 8's release. I went in with a mind totally innocent to what I was about to witness.

And so should you.

This is a movie that they just don't make anymore. And I keep thinking back to the scene in Joe's bedroom, when Alice sneaks out to see him and comes in through his window. That scene, too many movies in this day and age would have had it turning into something far too more between a boy and a girl on the verge of young adulthood. Super 8 takes the high ground without being pretentious about it. I thought that scene was incredibly sweet and tender and pure.

Wow. Just now realizing how much I've written about Super 8. Even though I don't know how much of this could sincerely be called a "review".

This is the kind of movie that I grew up wanting to make. And now that I'm a little older and have seen J.J. Abrams do it, and that it is possible to do it... well, maybe that has reinvigorated me. It certainly has made me respect Abrams all the more, and the man already had that between Cloverfield and Lost and 2009's Star Trek: still the finest re-launch of a franchise that I know of. And no doubt, Super 8 is going to inspire a lot of kids out there.

Just as Spielberg inspired us and still inspires us to this day.

Super 8, I cannot possibly more urge this blog's readers to see this movie. DON'T wait until the DVD and Blu-ray release. Absolutely do not watch it for the first time in streaming video on a teeny tiny monitor screen. If you can at all, you owe it to yourself to see this movie right now, on a big screen, with lots of other moviegoers around you. And preferably, in the company of good friends. I saw it with one on Sunday afternoon and I'm looking forward to seeing it with another this coming Friday (along with Green Lantern). Yes, this is a movie to see and celebrate with friendship, just like we did with The Goonies.

One last thing: does this movie have "PRODUCTION VALUE!!"?

Oh yeah. Big time. You'll see :-)