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Steven Spielberg, “Super 8” and the Art of the Summer Blockbuster

June 13, 2011

By John C.

There is a scene in the excellent Super 8, where young director Charles (Riley Griffiths) begs his best friend Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) to let him blow up his model train to provide the special effects for a low-budget zombie film that he is making on an old 8 millimeter video camera.

While many audiences will just see this as an amusing plot point, it is actually a clear nod to the film’s producer, the legendary Steven Spielberg.  Spielberg has crafted so many iconic classics over the years, but just like the kids in the movie, got his start making films on the floor of his bedroom.

It’s been said that Spielberg was so enamored with Cecil B. DeMille’s Oscar-winning circus disaster classic, The Greatest Show on Earth, that he would spend hours filming elaborate crash sequences that he would set up with his model trains.  Spielberg’s father had taken him to a matinée showing of DeMille’s 1952 epic, and the young future director was amazed at the power of the movies, particularly their ability to pass the time and blur the line between day and night.

But what stuck with him was a lasting need to create things of this magnitude, and a need to impress and entertain audiences.  He ultimately turned to his model trains, filming them crash into each other and begging his parents for money to buy new ones, until he finally got the scene just right.  This love of movies and those that make them is so evidently displayed in writer-director J.J. Abrams’ Super 8, that it’s clear why it was so personal for Steven Spielberg to sign on as a producer.

Every year around this time, it has almost become a cliché to say that Spielberg was arguably responsible for the first summer blockbuster of all time, when he directed the iconic Jaws in 1975.  He followed it up with the quietly suspenseful and thoughtful sci-fi masterpiece Close Encounters of the Third Kind in 1977, and enjoyed equal success in 1981 with the great adventure film, Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark.  For many, myself included, 1982’s heartwarming and brilliant E.T. remains one of his most beloved films.  As a producer, Spielberg has given us such classics as The Goonies and the great Back to the Future trilogy.

From the signature lighting and mysterious events, right down to a sense of adventure that is squarely in the right place, these are all clear inspirations behind Super 8.  Yet Abrams’ film never feels like a mere copy, rather a loving tribute to these great adventures of yesteryear.  For me, it fit in so well with these preexisting films, that it deserves to be a modern classic.  It’s wildly entertaining, very heartfelt and filled with youthful nostalgia, succeeding on every level that you could want as it lends itself well to being enjoyed in the most pure and classic way that we can think of when going to the movies.

Summer blockbusters should emotionally engage and physically entertain, and movies in general should blur the line between day and night, fiction and reality.  Steven Spielberg has known this since he went to a matinée of The Greatest Show on Earth, entering the theatre in the afternoon and emerging in the dark.  Amidst a modern summer of sequels, 3D and bombastic action, Super 8 manages to introduce this magic to a new generation, displaying a genuine love of movies, both those who make them and the audiences on the other side of the screen.

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