I know this feeling, I’ve had it before. It happened when I saw “Jurassic Park” at ten years old and told my parents I was going to direct films one day, and again when I saw “The Lord of the Rings” movies and realised the place I wanted to make them was in New Zealand. It was in the moments after seeing “Inception” and being in disbelief that someone had made a summer movie requiring the audience to think, or seeing “District 9” and realising big things are possible even from smaller and less costly packages. It was the shiver down my spine in the first “Transformers” movie when I believed I might walk out of the cinema and see robots walking around in the street and so too, was it in “Super 8”. Oprah calls it an “ah-ha” moment. I call it the fire in my belly that tells me to be a filmmaker.
After managing to avoid spoilers, interviews, message boards, film clips and anything aside from the film trailers I had seen, I went to see “Super 8” tonight. I felt this was one film that deserved to be watched as a film without paying attention to the hype . I had been burned by J.J. Abrams too many times before and I was not about to let it happen again. However, I would be lying if I said I went in with low expectations. I had seen some definite signs over the last few days that the film had lived up to the hype and as cautious as I was, it gave me enough optimism to go alone on opening night and buy a ticket.
Let me first say, I think a few moments of silence and appreciation are in order here just for the fact that J.J. Abrams has finally told a complete and coherent story that means something. Not only does it mean something, but it means something to me. I will try to avoid giving too much away in terms of plot, but the story follows a group of teenagers making a zombie film on their Super 8 camera together. One night, their filming location turns to a scene of disaster when a passing army train crashes and derails, releasing something (we don’t know what) into the wilderness.
In talking about this film, I almost don’t know where to begin aside from saying that the overall feeling I took away from it was a sort of “Goonies” for filmmakers. It felt like a love letter to almost every one of the movies from Spielberg’s heyday, and yet simultaneously managed to carve out enough identity of its own for it to be one of those great movies “they just don’t make anymore.
I do have one negative thing to say about the film and I should get that out of the way. It was the occasional blue lens flares in the Cinematography, which I felt had been overdone in “Star Trek”. Yes, it might look pretty sometimes but it was definitely out of place at times in a film like this that isn’t set on a space ship and I really don’t like it when it’s blocking the faces of characters you are trying to look at. That aside, this is brief and takes place at a point early on in the film rather than repeatedly showing up to be distracting.
The movies I mentioned above are all ones that gave me a shiver down my spine and prompted the voice in my head telling me, “this is why I do it, this is why I can’t do anything else, this is why there is no plan B”. Just like my climbing up the back of the seat at 10 years old from the excruciating tension as Velociraptors stalked kids in a kitchen, or when tears streamed down my face at the visual spectacle of an army of men on horses charging down a mountainside at Helm’s Deep; this is what real movies are made of. This too, is one of those movies, one of those movies that will more than likely make 10 year old boys all over the world want to make films. Perhaps the reason I sense this is because in many ways, I still feel like I am that 10 year old with a childlike enthusiasm who wants to make magic, who wants to create an illusion and suspension of disbelief in others. Sure, I am much more of a cynic and am far more jaded about Hollywood and the film industry than I was when I was a kid, but all it takes is a film experience like this to make it easier to ignore and be worth carrying on regardless. It’s not that watching “Super 8” or others mentioned made me want to make movies just like them, it’s that watching these films has driven me to work on making a film as good as those ones are. I think that’s an important point to make, it’s not about imitation so much as it is about achieving the same level of quality in my own work.
Performance wise, the young leads are all fantastic. I don’t think I’ve seen a young male lead carry a film quite as well as Joel Courtney since Henry Thomas (aka Elliot from “E.T.”). I can’t quite believe this was his first acting role in a film, so much of his performance is in the powerful moments of silence and what is left unsaid. Elle Fanning also proves herself to be just as good, if not better as a more grown up actress than her sister Dakota. Any film has its critics, but the wonderful thing about films sometimes is that two people can see a movie and depending on what has happened in their life, where they are from or how they were brought up, they may react or relate to it in a totally different way and have completely opposite opinions.
In 2005, my dad passed away abruptly from a heart attack; one day he was there and the next day he was not. It was an incredibly difficult time in my life in which I could barely communicate with my mum or brother because they were internalising a lot of their grief. Aside from the first day it happened, I don’t think I saw my mum cry about it again and for a long time that just seemed to be gasoline to a fire of angst, grief, anger and uncontrollable emotions for me. In my opinion, “Super 8” is not a monster movie about a mysterious creature wreaking havoc in small-town America, it’s not even a film about young filmmakers trying to make a Super 8 movie. To me, “Super 8” is a film about loss, a film about the damage that not dealing with that loss can do to the family members left behind and ultimately, learning to let go of those we miss now that they are no longer with us.
A parent’s untimely death is like a train crash, and in the aftermath of that crash, nothing makes sense and weird things happen, people say things they don’t mean or don’t say anything at all, tempers fray and everyone is just trying to get through, trying to survive and live in the hope that tomorrow will be a better day. However, it is only at the point when we face that fear of letting go and allow ourselves to start feeling again, to keep on living life, that the chaos and confusion will end and a sense of calm and peace can be restored.
Thank you J.J. Abrams, that was quite something.