By Ron Swanson
Striding through a wasteland of bloated sequels and wasted comic book adaptations comes this blockbuster season’s one true warrior of originality. Ignore the name; Super 8 is not a (seventh) sequel to Rainn Wilson’s twisted comic book movie. Instead, it’s a collaboration between one of the finest young filmmakers to be embraced by the Hollywood mainstream and one of the all time greats. Yes, that’s right: Super 8 is going to change the way Hollywood does summer blockbusters!
Now, if Mostly Film had the budget, that would all have been voiceover, and following that there would be a record scratch, and the picture would flash across images from seminal films like Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, ET (all directed by Super 8 producer Steven Spielberg), Stand by Me and The Goonies. Super 8 may not be a sequel. It may not be an adaptation. What JJ Abrams’ new film is, though, is an unashamed homage to the films of the 1980s films that I, for one, grew up adoring.
There are good and bad things about being so closely linked to the films you’re trying to emulate. Every moment is accompanied by a John Williams-esque score, which doesn’t just evoke emotions, but memories, which are, almost universally, of better films. Abrams isn’t great at the bigger scenes. Neither the sense of dread nor the sheer scale are ever quite imposing enough to enable Super 8 to reach the same levels of greatness as its many inspirations.
He does have some skill though in shaping a story, and that’s evident again here, as it was in Star Trek and Mission: Impossible 3. Having cut his teeth in network TV with Felicity and Alias, there’s a real sense of narrative urgency in his films at their best. He has a way with actors, as well, and that’s never been more evident on the big screen than here – he gets fantastic performances from his young leads Elle Fanning and Joel Courtney.
In spite of an attempt to ape many of Spielberg’s motifs (there’s even a distant dad! Yay!), it’s in the same dewy-eyed optimism for human relationships that Super 8 comes closest to resonating. It’s not that Abrams displays any insight, or even ratchets up the character development beyond a TV movie, but he does have a knack for sentimentality.
The questions that struck me after seeing the film (and I liked it enough to have seen it twice now), were, firstly, does Hollywood make original blockbusters any more, and, secondly, does anyone care? If I can answer the second part of the question first, the answer is probably yes, but not enough to make anyone “important” give two hoots. The evidence? Pirates of the Caribbean: Another Fucking One. The fourth film in a franchise that nobody (that I have ever met) likes more than one film in has passed $1bn worldwide. (There are some boring reasons why that figure is going to be less of a marker in the future than it has been.)
Johnny Depp’s seemingly flawless plan to erode all previously held goodwill for him aside, there has been a fifth X-Men film, an eighth Harry Potter movie, both lovingly written about on this site, as well as sequels to Cars, Kung Fu Panda and The Hangover. Every year brings another cargo of comic book heroes to our screen – be it Thor, Captain America or all-time stinker The Green Lantern, and audiences, for the most part, lap it up.
There are moments of brightness. This year has seen a spate of R-rated US comedies, the best of which, so far, has been Bridesmaids. These were all green-lit in the wake of the remarkable success of The Hangover, the most successful R-rated comedy of all time. (Until, of course, it was beaten early this year. By The Hangover Part II.) And, of course, anyone from the internet who’s read this far is likely to be thinking of Christopher Nolan’s Inception. A film I like, I would have more sympathy for its claims of originality if it hadn’t been borrowed, liberally, from a Scrooge McDuck comic strip.
When spending the vast amount of money it costs to visit the cinema, maybe audiences are refusing to take a chance, maybe cinema programmers refuse to give them a choice, or maybe Hollywood is adamant that what people already know, works. Whichever way you look at it, that’s, artistically at least, a problem.
But, then, of course, art has never been the blockbuster’s concern, as reinforced by the deceased daddy of the genre, Don Simpson: “We have no obligation to make art… Our obligation is to make money”.
Maybe under those terms we should embrace Super 8. It’s certainly an enjoyable film, especially if you can straddle the twin camps of nostalgia and low expectations, and a film that you sense was made with a slightly loftier ambition than making a quick buck. I’d much rather watch Super 9 than Pirates Fucking 5.