There has always been something genuinely magical about the Amblin Entertainment logo. Not only can it evoke such nostalgic feelings towards E.T., but it also visually sums up the magic that one felt, and continues to feel, towards an era of film that contained the words ‘Steven Spielberg Presents’. Spielberg may not have directed Back to the Future, The Goonies or Gremlins, but his presence is keenly felt throughout them. They are films that you know he was in the room with in some form, and that presence could even be figured out if you hadn’t seen the credits.
More often than not, these films took the form of teen comedy-drama or coming of age narratives, and married them to thrilling stories where fantasy, adventure, horror and comedy were the language of the day; written with charm, directed with subtle style, and more often than not pushing the boundaries of the PG-rating in terms of the horror as far as it could go. Unless you were Gremlins, of course, and ended up leading to the creation of a new rating.
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So much nostalgia is directed to so many films of the 80s that it was inevitable that the 2010s would start a huge turn towards stories drenched in yearningly looking back towards the days when being off school meant leaving the house and travelling via bicycle, and that one of the best summer films of 2011 would be one that unabashedly evoked a love towards that type of film. Unsurprisingly, Spielberg would be credited as producer, and the Amblin logo would be proudly emblazoned upon it.
The 2010s might only have ended a short time ago, but it was a decade that set in stone a move towards nostalgia-filled productions – when it wasn’t trying to launch a new superhero movie franchise into the world. In some ways, the move towards nostalgia flavourings was already in full effect; when the first Transformers movie came out, one couldn’t help but feel that the Spielberg-producer credit felt right at home with its ‘boy finds out his car is a robot’ story, even if it was filtered through director Michael Bay’s need to blow everything up in sight for two and a half hours. (For the record, I rather like the first Transformers film. The sequels are regrettably terrible and it’s really not until the recent Bumblebee that the balance is truly right, although unsurprisingly it took the series back to the 80s as well.)
Super 8 doesn’t take place in the 80s – in fact, its story is firmly planted in the late 70s – but it has the unmistakable feel of a film that could have been produced in a decade of big hair, New Wave Romanticism, and when Spielberg was dominating blockbuster film production. It also happens to be J.J. Abrams‘ best film.
It’s apt that this is an Abrams film; if there was anyone who had a ‘next Spielberg’ mantle attached to him (and there have been several throughout the years) it was perhaps the man who would take over Star Wars upon its relaunch a few years after Super 8‘s premiere. The writer/director might have become a somewhat controversial figure in recent years due to the creative direction of both of his recent Star Wars contributions, particularly the retconning/reactionary nature of so much of The Rise of Skywalker, but it’s also easy to forget that initial onslaught of excitement that greeted his name attached to television shows and films during the 2010s.
Alias, Lost and Fringe somewhat reinvented the idea of network genre television, showing that mainstream audiences could go along with challenging serialised narratives in a medium that often turned away from such things. Unafraid to daringly try and convolute their mythologies, and frequently ending with cliffhangers that demanded that you come back the next week, they are amongst the best television series produced during their time on the air. That Alias and Fringe are more regarded as cult hits than the blockbuster success of Lost shouldn’t negate their importance, and while Abrams would dial back his involvement in his television while his movie career took off, they remained endlessly watchable and brilliant, especially Fringe which became truly unmissable television even as the ratings dwindled.
Abrams’ ability to combine blockbuster event storytelling with sweepingly emotional narratives, frequently backed to stirring Michael Giacchino music scores, made him ideal for the movie world. His work on the third Mission: Impossible film cemented a style for that series that has since been carried by Christopher McQuarrie, and he brought Star Trek back to a mainstream movie-going audience with his 2009 ‘reboot’. Super 8 might appear less epic, but it has the feeling of the ‘smaller, personal one’ for Abrams.
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Its tale of young protagonists making movies during the summer, their bedrooms covered in posters for the films of George A. Romero and John Carpenter, and becoming involved in a high adventure involving an escaped monster, an antagonistic military presence and complicated family dynamics with parents, feels like a film that is simultaneously personal and yet also lovingly looks back towards the films that followed in the wake of the 70s when Spielberg and Lucas changed Hollywood.
Surprisingly, this makes its nostalgia somewhat complex. It’s a film that lovingly evokes The Goonies, Back to the Future, Gremlins and E.T., and yet its lead characters are influenced by the less glossy Spielberg antics of those films and the more groundbreaking New Hollywood aesthetic of Romero’s grisly zombie satires and Carpenter’s finessing of the slasher movie formula: all R-rated films with challenging moments of violence compared to the PG-rating pushing boundaries of hordes of Mogwai and emotional sweep of ET.
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If anything, it would be easier to imagine the likes of Charles (Riley Griffiths), Alice (Elle Fanning), Joe (Joel Courtney), Cary (Ryan Lee), Martin (Gabriel Basso), and Preston (Zach Mills) responding more to the blood draining chills and intensity of John Carpenter’s The Thing or Ridley Scott’s Alien more than the family-friendly antics of E.T. and Elliot, but it’s this which makes the character such good company for Super 8‘s duration.
It would essentially become Stranger Things before that show came to fruition, even if The Duffer Brothers’ wonderful Netflix series has had more of a foothold on the pop culture sphere than Abrams’ film. It’s a shame that Super 8 didn’t have more of an impact. Budget to box office, the film made a nice profit for Paramount Pictures, but its box office is still lesser than Abrams’ work on Star Trek, Star Wars and Mission: Impossible.
Certainly, they are franchise pictures, but given that Abrams’ contemporary Christopher Nolan managed to parlay his successful work on The Dark Knight Trilogy into equally successful box office performances for the likes of Inception, Interstellar and Dunkirk, it’s disappointing to note that Super 8, whose promotion very much attached itself to the Abrams and Spielberg brands, couldn’t quite carry the box office towards something even higher. (For the record, the box office is not reflective of a film’s quality; far from it, in fact).
If there was any constant criticism levelled at the film, it was at the ending, which sometimes feels like it’s walked in from something different. That final scene is powerful, played to perfection by the entire cast, especially Courtney and on-screen dad Kyle Chandler (whose presence makes every movie better), but it also centres around an emotional goodbye to a mistreated alien that has racked up a huge body count throughout the film, eating citizens right, left and centre.
It’s easy to see the criticism, and yet it’s also not hard to be swept along by Abrams’ ability to carry you along in that Spielbergian way. Giacchino, a natural heir to John Williams, gives the sequence that emotional grace that makes it an even more powerful experience, not to mention a well-placed locket that acts as a not-so-subtle piece of symbolism for letting go.
Despite that, no matter how many times I watch it, I always get a little something in my eye, so you know it’s managed to do something right. It remains a highlight of Abrams’ career. For all the flak he has gotten for his Star Wars films, or for essentially remaking The Wrath of Khan with Star Trek Into Darkness (a film I also rather enjoy), Super 8 indicates that he can do smaller and personal but still have the ability to do the big stuff brilliantly as well. The film functions as perfectly in its smaller moments as it does when everything is being blown up during the third act, and it’s the smaller character beats here that are amongst the best work that Abrams has delivered as a writer and director.
Some cynics might scoff and complain about how much it says that a nostalgia-fest like this is his best film, but he’s good at it. He’s good at not only evoking a love of a type of film, but he clearly knows how to produce it, how to engage with the audience and how to make the story work (tonal issues with the portrayal of the monster aside).
For all the criticism that you can level at how nostalgia has been somewhat weaponised by the movie and television industries in recent years, there is a distinct lack of weaponisation here. There is a genuine love of this material filtered through every inch of Super 8‘s duration, and it’s this which, ten years after its premiere, continues to make it a wonderful film.
Super 8 was released in the UK on 5th August 2011.