First of all, apologies for the lateness of this week’s post: a combination of working nights and presenting the Cannes in a Van “Van D’Or Awards 2011” has thrown my body clock into turmoil, and as such although I did get to the cinema in the last few days I’ve had precious little time to marshal my thoughts into any kind of cohesive discourse. Secondly, I should point out at this early stage to anyone who has read the title and is expecting a gloomy and curmudgeonly rehash of my anti-3D arguments (for more on which see my piece on Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams) to please remain for a while and not automatically move away from this article: for what we really see through rose-tinted spectacle is the past, and this is what fundamentally generates that slippery and subjective feeling of nostalgia.
I took a last minute swerve away from watching “Sarah’s Choice” this week: current events put a stopper on my desire to see a worthy but depressing piece (that and apart from Kristen Scott-Thomas’ performance it isn’t rated amazingly highly). Instead, I went for a film which I’ve heard little about personally, but which it turns out has been highly anticipated, has generated incredibly favorable critical attention, and has been directed by a talent who I rate as both fascinating and as one of our great mainstream filmmakers: “Super 8,” directed by JJ Abrams.
Already I find myself obliged to add a proviso to clarify the oblique and sweeping statement I just made: I don’t at present rate JJ Abrams as one of mainstream cinema’s great talents, but rather he’s a director of considerable imagination and cinephilia who could potentially be a major talent. Time and time again with Abrams, it is far easier to admire the ambition and enjoy the work on a simple, superficial level rather than be completely transfixed and assured that one is viewing an exceptional example of a certain type of work. As one of the creators of “Lost” Abrams was ultimately undone by the demanding nature of the number of screen hours required of a typical American television season. The time-twisting narrative, heavily abundant sub-plotting and sustenance of perhaps the slowest-revealing mystery premise in memory didn’t ultimately subdue audience infuriation, as the hours of drama piled up and ever-greater levels of attention were demanded of the viewer. Only by reducing the amount of episodes in a series and in the latter two seasons going completely barmy with time-travel and parallel universes did the series acquire the means to sustain itself to a satisfying conclusion. “Mission Impossible 3” isn’t to my mind the best installment in an admittedly ridiculous and unremarkable series, as the more espionage suspense-thriller treatment of De Palma’s first film was for me the more engaging and faithful adaptation of the television source, yet Abrams packs enough intense kinetic energy into his high-octane action sequences to gloss over the film’s many flaws. His major-league franchise reboot with “Star Trek” remains his best film to date, being as it is one of the most purely entertaining and compulsively watchable films of recent years, yet its strength lies only partly in Abrams’ filmmaking, and more in how the film’s screenplay and performances craft a fantastic relation to nostalgia for the material and repaying the enthusiasm and good will of the target audience, so often let down by the ponderously amusing adventures of Shatner and co, and by Patrick Stewart’s transformation from mercurial commander to Captain Ahab obsessive.
The sheer fact that it belongs to no pre-existing franchise immediately renders “Super 8” as a more personal project for Abrams, and would threaten to realize his potential as a genre filmmaker were its strength not also its weakness: namely this nostalgia issue which, combined with contemporary filmmaking sensibilities, made “Star Trek” such a fun and rewarding watch. “Super 8” has much to recommend it, and is certainly a refreshing diversion from CGI-heavy derivative summer movies, even if a major criticism of “Super 8” is how abundantly CGI is still in use on-screen. The piece is an overt nod to the early films of Spielberg and to the childhood adventure film movement his work inspired, from “The Goonies” to “Back to the Future.” The same senses of innocent naiveté and wonderment, the celebratory pop-culture of Americana in relation to cinephilia, and of course the inherent curiosity and excitement of extra-terrestrial life is as dominating in Abrams’ new film as it was in the films which inspired it, the director of which seals the link between the two through being a producer on this film, and there is something quite re-assuring about seeing the Amblin name associated with this kind of film once again (and with a film demonstrating genuine heart and quality). “Super 8” certainly provides the suspense of “Jaws” and the wonderment of “Close Encounters” in its treatment of the alien life-form, some frankly extraordinary child performances which recall the young actors of “ET,” and the effusive love of film displayed by the teen characters echoes that of Spielberg and his salad days productions. Abrams film is an entertaining and comfortably endearing film in its own right, and the screenplay deserves the majority of the credit for this fact. Abrams has some tremendous unknown actors on hand to help him, but the characters of his script are incredibly richly drawn on the page, prompting the realisation of an eclectic and absorbingly affectionate screen community, his handling of pace and tone similarly impressive.
“Super 8” is a very good film which deserves most of the praise forthcoming to it, yet for me it isn’t the superlative film some rate it to be, nor does it see Abrams really create something which represents his full potential, due to the complications the piece’s inherent nostalgia adds to it. In relating so directly to a previous era of adventure filmmaking and rejecting present mainstream blockbuster trends it is possible to attribute to this film and quality it doesn’t attain based upon its own strengths, but does in relation to crass, bloated and soulless fare also on general release this summer. Also, as a consequence of how lackluster mainstream cinema entertainment has become are we mis-remembering how good the post Spielberg/Lucas wave of adventure films aimed primarily at young audiences really was? Are we looking back on the films which have clearly elevated and whose mark is so indelibly upon “Super 8” through the proverbial rose-tinted spectacles? Certainly Lucas’ achievements on the first Star Wars trilogy speak for themselves, and as disappointed as I am with what is only a couple of years away from being numerically classified as the entire second half of Spielberg’s career, the quality of his late seventies/early eighties output remains to this day an enviable body of work: yet the price of these films’ considerable success was surely the destruction of independent American cinema by a revitalized studio production model, and this for me has always been too high a price for American film to have paid. With regard to the wave of films inspired, and in many cases nurtured, by this wave of filmmakers it must be said that many eighties blockbusters in particular are nothing more than nostalgic classics, and this isn’t the same as being actual classics. The problem now with films like “The Goonies,” and “The Karate Kid” is that because they are viewed at formative ages we remember them as being better than they were, and the relation of “Super 8” to this wave of films seems to me like it will as time passes be remembered in a similar way, intensified by the transience and good will of memory.
“Super 8” is a fine piece of work with its heart in the right place, and whilst there is nothing at all wrong with it somehow is doesn’t quite establish itself as a classic or as a major contender for the top film of the summer. It is best viewed in the light of a director’s homage to his idol and producer Steven Spielberg, rather than as a tribute to any temporal cinematic movement. More troublingly, bearing in mind how much nostalgic positivity threatens to skew the audience’s reaction to this film, is how easily all of us can be affected by factors external to a film. Can we ever watch a film dispassionately, without bias, and without being affected by numerous other factors? If not, how can critical deconstructions of the form ever truly validate themselves? It’s a good thing we all recognize the complete subjectivity of criticism, otherwise we’d be facing a true theoretical meltdown!