Super 8: Just as Great as You Hoped It Would Be

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Francois Duhamel / Paramount Pictures

A scene from Super 8

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The Age of Innocence
There's a reason that Super 8, with all its cool thrills, also seems a work of innocence: it takes incidental inspiration from the films of a director who, back in 1979, was the J.J. Abrams of his day. Look closely and you'll see that Super 8 is a medley of tropes from the films of Spielberg's early prime. They're all here: Duel (an unseen, car-wrecking force), The Sugarland Express (a blonde driving a hot car), Jaws (the town sheriff tracking a monster), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (ordinary folks unearthing a military secret), 1941 (people panicking on news of an invasion), Poltergeist (an underground menace that steals people), The Goonies (kids on a dangerous mission) and especially E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (an alien event seen through children's eyes, plus a few other echoes we won't mention).

The films are summoned not as a series of gag references but as an evocation — in a grainier, more urgent style — of the old Spielbergian nexus of childhood fear and wonder. "I didn't want the film to look like it was made in 1979," Abrams says. "I wanted it to look the way we remember films looking from 1979. I wanted to build a bridge between then and now. This was always an Amblin film in spirit," he says, referring to Spielberg's production company, "because that period in my life was so profoundly impacted by American cinema of the era."

That era was the late '70s, when Jeffrey Jacob Abrams was a movie-mad kid growing up in Los Angeles, the son of film and TV producer Gerald Abrams. Super 8 is a sort of fictionalized memoir of his early days shooting Super-8 movies with his pal Matt Reeves. Reeves later would direct Cloverfield as well as Let Me In, which, like Super 8, is a poetic rendering of preadolescent anguish in a horror-film setting. (Larry Fong, another teen compadre of Abrams', is Super 8's cinematographer.)

When they were 15, Abrams' and Reeves' work was written up in the Los Angeles Times, and, miracle of miracles, the boys got a call from Spielberg associate Kathleen Kennedy with an offer to have them repair two of the 8-mm films, then crumbling, that the master had made when he was their age. "To this day," Abrams says, "it makes no sense to me why Steven would put the original prints of Firelight and Escape to Nowhere in the hands of two 15-year-old strangers. I mean, have you ever seen 15-year-olds? Don't give them things if you want them back — especially repaired. But Matt and I did it."

Decades later, Spielberg and Abrams revisited their boyhood love of moviemaking. "We both had idea fragments about our early 8-mm days, using friends to act and crew our movies," Spielberg says. "Kind of like an insane 8-mm Our Gang adventure. Then J.J. had the idea to put them in the middle of a big sci-fi event but emphasized that the event was the B story and the kids were the big story. I acted as his sounding board, but J.J. was the creative engine from Day One. He felt this story from his soul. As I watched him acting out scenes, I saw myself 20 years ago. He was like my time machine."

Fanning, playing 14 when she was 12, is a showbiz pro, having co-starred in Sofia Coppola's Somewhere. But Courtney, 14 playing 12, was just an Idaho kid taking acting lessons when Abrams cast him. The stark tenderness of their scenes is surely due in part to the director's communicating with them peer to peer, as if, once again, he were a kid putting his friends through their movie paces. "He was 14 directing 13-year-olds," Spielberg says, "and the honesty that shows in every performance was the natural result."

Given Abrams' talent for the tease, Super 8 has fanboys on point for the movie's June 10 release. They and other moviegoers may be shocked at how the film plays with genre expectations, then transcends and obliterates them. "The greatest fun and challenge," Abrams says, "came from balancing a coming-of-age love-story character piece with essentially a monster movie." Did you ever cry at a boy-meets-girl picture? All right, did you root for a monster to win? Those are just two of the surprises awaiting you in the year's most thrilling, feeling mainstream movie. The some thing you'll feel is the open heart of J.J. Abrams, Super 8's boy genius.

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