My U.S. childhood revisited, courtesy of J.J. Abrams and Super 8
In which I belatedly catch up with Super 8 and realise that J.J. Abrams has plucked my American childhood out of my memory and put it up on the screen. Amazing what Hollywood can do nowadays.
(J.J. Abrams, 2011)
Like anybody of my age, I grew up with the films of Steven Spielberg: Close Encounters, E.T., and the rest. But unlike most kids in Britain, I lived it, too. Between 1983 and 1985, I moved to America, effectively experiencing a two-year holiday in Amblin Town. My new schoolmates looked and sounded like Elliott; my suburban neighbourhood twisted and turned like a studio backlot. The month before I left, I visited the distinctive Cannon Beach in Oregon; the very last night before my flight home, I went to see The Goonies… whose first scene was shot on Cannon Beach.
So Super 8 is far more than just a well-made recreation of that era’s cinema; for me it’s personal. J.J. Abrams’ uncanny mimickry of the Amblin world gives me a Proustian rush that gives me goosebumps, even before it develops into the best blockbuster of recent years. Mentions of Euro Grey Airfix paint and electronic football games might be window dressing for today’s teenagers, but for me they dredge up long-forgotten memories and make them tangible again. The timber-framed homes; the airy spaces; the communual hubbub of the family den. My God!
And, true to the spirit of those times, Abrams lets this world determine the pace and the character of his story. If this movie was set today, the premise of schoolkids accidentally filming an alien escaping from a train crash would see them posting the footage on U-Tube by the second act, and ‘on the run’ for the rest of the running time. Here, the fact that Super 8 film takes days to develop becomes a plot point. It’s a more innocent time, one in which carnage can become the perfect backdrop for continuing to make the most of a summer of kids’ stuff.
Did I say innocent? This film also harks back to the untroubled sweariness and gore of kids’ films, before Molar Ram’s heart-ripping antics facilitated the two-tier system of the PG-13. Remember, I was there… and as the only English kid in aschoolofAmericans, I can vouch for the accuracy of the casual piss-taking: not cruel but not kind either; simply honest. The fact that the dumbest of the kids is nicknamed Smartin is more a realistic touch than most art-house auteurs can manage.
Strip away the extra-terrestrial plotline, and this could almost be a film by Truffaut or the Dardennes brothers, with its adolescent awkwardness and its sense of the everyday troubles behind apparently sunny facades. Abrams doesn’t shirk from showing the kids’ pain; the film’s mid-point sees not an action set-piece but two kids sharing their grief as they watch old footage of a parent who has passed away.
Cynics might regard it as being too neat that the presence of the alien provides the catharsis Joel and Alice need to reunite with their parents. It’s textbook Spielbergian feelgood, but the schmaltz is earned because Abrams’ film gets to the heart of something not often appreciated about the Amblin films. Those films provided genuine escapism, for sure, but it was the ability of, say, E.T. to address real problems of loneliness and abandonment that made the escape all the more meaningful. Super 8 is a reminder of the power the Hollywood blockbuster once had, and the timeless wisdom of its ending – the past must be let go of – is tinged with sadness that this must be the case.