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My Best of 2011: Super 8 & Understanding as a Child…

It’s that time of the year. To celebrate 2011, and the countdown to 2012, I’m going to count down my own twelve favourite films of the year, one a day until New Year’s Eve. I’m also going to talk a bit about how or why I chose them, and perhaps what makes this list “my” best of 2011, rather than any list claiming to be objective.

Super 8 is number ten. Check out my original review here.

When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me.

– Corinthians 13:11

It seems easy to lambast modern mainstream cinema as devoid of originality or of new ideas. It seems that every other film is a sequel or a prequel or a remake of another film, with Hollywood seemingly eager to cannibalise itself. I’ll concede that there are more franchises than before, but I also think that indie and original cinema is thriving in its own environment. I’d make the case that there’s room for all sorts of film, and that originality and quality don’t necessarily equate. Still, I doubt that will appease too many of the people who are sick of “the same old nonsense”, and I imagine that those people will cynically pick apart Super 8 as exactly the sort of copycat movie that demonstrates everything that’s wrong with modern cinema.

Naturally, I take a different approach, even if I can concede it’s hardly the most original of films. Then again, I’d make the case that this is precisely the appeal.

Of course, Super 8 isn’t the eighth instalment in a series of “Super” movies. It’s not a remake or a sequel or a spin-off. The characters are original, and the plot is generic, but not adapted literally from anywhere. However, the entire film is constructed by JJ Abrams as a giant affectionate homage to the early works of Steven Spielberg. It’s one giant love letter to the films Spielberg directed like Close Encounters of the Third Kind or E.T., or even to those he produced like The Goonies. Set in the seventies, one could imagine the film might have been written in the seventies. Only the slightly excessive use of lens flair and superb CGI effects denote it as a modern film.

There’s very little original in the film. It doesn’t necessarily craft its own identity as much as it coasts off an abiding cinematic affection for Spielberg. Indeed, anyone who dislikes Spielberg is unlikely to find anything to appeal to them here. Even those with a sincere and abiding affection for the director might find themselves offended by such a direct attempt at imitation, forgetting that it is the sincerest form of flattery. However, there’s something that Super 8 seems to recognise about Spielberg, something that many other attempts at imitation ignore or overlook, and something that I suspect is the key to Spielberg’s success with audiences of all ages. Quite simply, Spielberg’s more accessible films tend to see things as a child.

That’s not an insult and it’s not an attempt to belittle one of the most influential directors of the past fifty years. I honestly believe that Spielberg’s films manage to find such a large audience and bypass cynicism because they present a child-like view of the world. That isn’t to suggest that they’re dumb or simple – they are neither. Indeed, we tend to underestimate children and their capacity to comprehend or make sense of the world around, even when they aren’t given the proper tools.

So often in Spielberg films – from Close Encounters to Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade to Jurassic Park – there’s a family in crisis at the centre of the story. However, it’s never about the crisis. Indy doesn’t set out to find his father, any more than John Hammond intends to bond with his grandchildren. Children have their own ways of coping with the complexities that life throws at them, and tend to hide behind them. So the kids in E.T. deal with the loss of their father through finding a new “alien” friend who must also depart. Indy engages on a mystical and magical quest that just happens to reunite him with his father and allow him to work through his own issues. That’s the way that kids process information, rather than tackling with it directly.

And Spielberg’s stories are all constructed as the adventures of children, brought to life. Who hasn’t thought about what it might be like to befriend an alien? Or to run with dinosaurs? Or to have exotic adventures with rare artifacts in hidden tombs? There’s an elegant simplicity to those early Spielberg adventures that I think even he lost a little bit of over the years. It’s easy to imagine kids playing make-believe to the concept of Jurassic Park or Indiana Jones or E.T., but the relatively rational science-fiction of A.I. or Minority Report seems somehow more “anchored” or more “grown-up” than the playful fantasies of old.

I think that Super 8 works because Abrams actually saw Spielberg’s films as a child, and never forgot how that must have felt. Rather than a bland homage to a cinematic master, Super 8 feels a little bit recursive. It’s the child-like perspective of Spielberg as seen through the childhood perspective of Abrams. It’s the product of a person who didn’t view these films as an adult enjoying a science-fiction adventure, but as a child who saw their own imaginary world somehow projected on to the big screen.

The opening sequence of Super 8 is wonderful, and I think it captures this idea wonderfully. We see what Joe Lamb sees at his mother’s funeral, without any context or additional insight. We see a scruffy and ashamed-looking Louis Dainard arrive and walk inside. There’s noise. Joe’s father, the local deputy, utters a few harsh words before driving Louis away in the back of his squad car. We don’t know what’s going on here, but our minds wander. Joe’s father won’t explain the situation to him – the two barely talk. Instead, he must piece it together in his own way, trying to make sense of a jumble of random images and hints of information.

This is how children see the world. As much as parents might try to shelter them, they pick up on more than we realise. They might lack the context to tie it all together, but they can notice the strange little tics and nuances – even if they can’t process them fully. Abrams does an astounding job with his young cast crafting a coming-of-age story that doesn’t patronise his characters or his audience. He doesn’t treat them like idiots, but he doesn’t give them wisdom beyond their years. Like Spielberg himself, Abrams appreciates what it is really like to be a child, rather than what we imagine it to be like.

Of course, there’s a lot more to Super 8 that works. As I discussed when talking about Rango, I’m a sucker for properly-executed cinematic nostalgia, and Super 8 has that in abundance. I don’t know if I can generalise from my own experience, but film was a significant part of my own personal development, and affected how I see the world in a fairly major way. I suspect that Abrams feels the same way, and there’s a great sense of that here. The characters all use film as a means of comprehending the world around them, or coping and dealing.

Whether it’s the footage and soundtrack that provides the necessary exposition on the creature, the film that provides the central plot and leads to the characters growing up, or even Joe’s footage of his mother giving him a link to the past, this is a film that realises how important and influential cinema can be. It realises that the combination of image and sound can mean so much more when combined than either could alone, but also that it can mean much more than the sum total of its parts added together. It’s a sweet sentiment, and one I can’t resist. I fear that this countdown might expose me as the big softie that I am. My street cred will be ruined.

Super 8 isn’t an original film. It’s hugely derivative of the work of one of this generation’s most important film makers. However, that doesn’t mean it’s any less of a film, or that it isn’t to be counted among the year’s very best.

I’m counting down my top twelve films of 2011, one a day. Here’s the list so far:

12.) Rango

11.) The Guard

10.) Super 8

09.) The Adjustment Bureau

08.) True Grit

07.) Rise of the Planet of the Apes

06.) Black Swan

05.) Thor

04.) Midnight in Paris

03.) The Artist

02.) Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

01.) Drive

You might also like our other end/start-of-year pieces:

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