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With Super 8, director J.J. Abrams reveals himself not only as quite the commercial filmmaker, but a sociologist as well. Obviously an individual of broad interests, Abrams’ film is a textbook example of how to make a popular film that appeals to a wide constituency while maintaining a certain degree of artistic integrity.  As my former film school professor Howard Suber has long indicated, creating memorable, popular films is more akin to a political campaign than anything else. Success is measured by bringing everyone in under a large tent, with the vote being box office appeal. With Abrams, we see constituency building at its most clever, and yet without an ounce of insincerity, or at least the perception of such.  Abrams both reminds us of a past, pre-1980’s cinema that effectively built such constituencies while not insulting the intelligence of a more sophisticated audience.  As such, he can hook people like me (an adult middle-aged male), but also teenage girls — no easy feat in today’s world with its jaded studio execs whose demographers and marketers have convinced them such things are impossible. It takes someone like producer Steven Spielberg to push Super 8 through unscathed, and I’ll bet one of his main roles was to help Abrams maintain the purity of his vision.  Also, the budget on this film ($50 million) is relatively low compared to some Comic Book films that have A-listers attached. Super 8 has no stars;  the star is the story.

Some could accuse Abrams of being derivative. To be sure, there is a lot of influence going on in this film. First, and most mentioned by critics, is Steven Spielberg, whose footprint is all over the film both in terms of style and content; but most would agree the Spielberg emulated is not the Spielberg of present, but of pre-Reagan, 1970’s America, where the action of the film takes place. That Spielberg was melding the humanism of 70’s American filmmakers such  as Coppola, Scorsese, Bogdonavich and Cassavetes with the genre showmanship of the American Studio system.  As such, Super 8 reflects more the Spielberg of Close Encounters and E.T., and less the Spielberg of Duel, Jaws, or War of the Worlds.  During the early seventies, Coppola and company were very much influenced by the European art films out of the fifties and sixties, primarily from the French New Wave and Italian Neorealist masters. So from a very circuitous and long view perspective, Super 8 is all about carrying forward humanistic European sensibilities in cinema that arose post World War II, primarily from auteur filmmakers such as De Sica, Godard, Truffaut and Rossellini. Truffaut (who starred in Close Encounters) in particular had a strong impact on Spielberg.

What Spielberg has always done well is family relationships, and Abrams handling of the family is 100% Spielberg. In Super 8, familial relationships take front and center, and become the driving force behind the action.  As with Close Encounters and Jaws, the angst of the central adult male is very evident as a motivational prod that both deepens the character and the emotional payoff when the eventual familial bonding arrives. What is humanistic about this film is that themes of reconciliation rank high; that is, what brings people together rather than what separates them. Moreover, this same theme is carried into the Sci-Fi, galactic realm.  If you are a UFO and expolitical follower, this stuff is dead serious, which is why Arthur C. Clark felt that Close Encounters of the Third Kind was the most important film ever made, and would likely rank Super 8 right up there with that film in terms of its importance as a social artifact. The primary theme becomes one of compassion, not alien-squashing hatred. It is compassion, derived from the familial struggle and bonding, that reaches out to the wider world past the nuclear family and into the cosmos.

Another important reference for Abrams is Stephen King, specifically Stand By Me (based on a short story by King and directed by Rob Reiner) and IT. In IT, the group of boys whose central muse was a young girl who helped motivate them to battle the evil entity, much as Alice (beautifully played by Elle Fanning) becomes the muse to the boys in Super 8.  Alice becomes the central, feminine voice of the film, and the purpose behind the boys’ quest.  It is her innocence, beauty and sensitivity that drive them forward, not the adrenaline rush of killing an enemy, as is standard in video games and comic book movies galore. This is very much counter to a military mindset, which often tends to see everything without an American flag stitched onto it as an enemy. Thus the film fits in with a long line of anti-military films that arose out of the Vietnam era, and why its placement in a 70’s America makes so much sense. It is also why the film also makes sense in a war-weary America of today.

Soon after it was the eighties, Reagan was on the scene, Conan the Barbarian was hitting the screens, Superman II was released, and the rest is cinematic history in terms of the slow devolution of humanism in modern films. How easily we forget that E.T., Close Encounters, The Godfather, M*A*S*H, Patton, Alice Doesn’t Live Here AnymoreThe Last Picture Show and Apocalypse Now all packed houses in their day just a substantially as The Green Hornet and Transformers.  Have audiences changed that much, or are other exigencies and agendas also at play?

Outside of Abrams and Spielberg, who best understands all this human story  and constituency building stuff is Pixar. With J.J. Abrams and Super 8, we see the potential for these kinds of stories to make their way back into the mainstream cineplex with live human characters, not animated Avatars. Let’s  hope there’s more of the same on the way.

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