Review by Ryan Wilson

The movies, more than any other art form, survive and sometimes even thrive on nostalgia. This might be due to movies being commercial entities, far more expensive to produce than poetry or fiction. Before a mainstream film even goes into production the marketing occurs, and even after the film is made it gets further tweaked to please an audience that has watched a similar work. Most movies, in fact, piggyback on emotions felt in similar genres and stories. While this is just general knowledge concerning how the industry works, one new summer film asks audiences to do more than experience cinematic nostalgia; it counts on us to deconstruct it.

Super-8 was produced by Steven Spielberg and directed by J.J. Abrams. To call the film unoriginal is in fact a compliment because rather than create something original, the filmmakers have cobbled together the best sequences from “classic” action and science fiction films from the 1980s. Most of these were directed by Spielberg, which raises the question of whether it’s acceptable to plagiarize oneself? But there’s a fine line between plagiarism and paying homage, and honestly it’s been thirty years since we’ve had an alien in the suburbs, long enough for that specific chestnut to warm our hearts and excite us anew.

Like the Goonies and E.T., our lead characters are middle school children adrift beyond adult supervision, and like Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T., the military is particularly menacing and even abusive toward the general population. Both of these choices made sense in the late 70s into 80s, when latchkey kids made their own rules as single parents picked up the pieces of modern life after Watergate and Vietnam. Super 8 even sets its story in 1979, so when strange events begin to occur in its dying Ohio steel town, many of the adults blame the Russians. We also get some clever jokes about Disco and Walkmans, almost as if Abrams and Spielberg are simultaneously missing and mocking the bygone era, as if they would prefer their audience to long for and laugh at a more primitive time. I spent most of the movie in conflict with these emotions. In many ways, 1979 never looked so innocent, though I recall in fact that it wasn’t. But after the first decade of the 21st century, one’s childhood can look pretty inviting when presented so enthusiastically.

The film even presents the alien in mixed tones. He’s at once a terribly violent beast ready to rip you into the shrubbery and a terribly misunderstood tourist who wants to “phone home.” Like E.T., his fate ultimately parallels our main boy Joe Lamb, played well by Joel Courtney, whose mother has been tragically killed in a factory accident. Needless to say, when the two meet, we are in store for a “Spielberg” moment with the music rising and the tears flowing.

There’s a reason why these cinematic crescendos went out of style. They are entirely manipulative, almost to the point of killing the genuine emotion we might have for the film’s characters. But I’m sure I’m in the minority here, and I’ll even admit to bawling after I saw those bikes fly across the moon when I was ten years old. But: I was ten years old.

One retread of the older films that I celebrate returning is the depiction of the children. For so long, kids in mainstream movies have been safely likeable, to the point of having no personality at all. The kids in Super 8 are sloppy and real. They swear. They have emotions, and they don’t always get along. This isn’t just the way we were in ’79, but the way kids still are.

Spielberg, of course, was part of the film school generation, that group of filmmakers in the early 1970s that made personal, experimental films and later populist crowd-pleasers. Because they’d gone to school to learn their craft, they’d studied masters from Europe and Asia, often paying homage or downright stealing a technique for their own films. The most famous example of this was Brian DePalma using the famous Odessa Steps sequence from Sergei Eisenstein’s film The Battleship Potemkin in 1987’s The Untouchables. DePalma counted on his audience to have seen Eisenstein, just as Abrams counts on his audience in Super 8 to have seen Spielberg.

That he’s paying such a large homage to Spielberg almost feels too soon. It’s a move that will leave many appropriately feeling both old and young again.

Take 5 on Film is a production of Delta College Quality Public Radio.

© Ryan Wilson, 2011