Movie nerd confession: I had not seen Spielberg’s Close Encounters until a night ago. It was one of those films that I never felt compelled to watch as a child, and now after seeing it, I think it isn’t a movie for kids. In many ways its a fairy tale for adults. Yet, it still evokes that same sense of awe and mystery all of Spielberg’s work does. Super 8 is most definitely a massive nostalgia trip for my generation, accurately mimicking the tropes and tone of the Amblin films of my youth.
In Super 8, we have an amalgamation of elements of plot and style borrowed from the three major films of the Spielberg canon (Jaws, Close Encounters, and E.T.). We have the law enforcement agent investigating a threat to his town (Jaws), the military involved in a massive dupe of the citizens (Close Encounters), and a story focused on a group of kids and their adventure through this scenario (E.T.). It doesn’t try to be any more than a pastiche and the story, without these stylistic flourishes, isn’t anything spectacular. But JJ Abrams manages to accomplish what Hollywood has been attempting for the last 30 years, to re-create the magic of the original Steven Spielberg blockbuster. How he accomplishes this is through looking at what made those films of the late 1970s and early 1980s so memorable.
If we were to go by the studio model for summer films, we might assume Spielberg succeeded by his special effects. While those definitely played a part, flashy images alone don’t etch a film deep into your brain. What Spielberg understood was that the humanity that under lied his stories of the fantastic are infinitely more compelling than anything a computer can generate. If we look at Close Encounters, there’s a few quick special effects moments in the beginning, another in the middle, but the big stuff happens in the last twenty minutes. Spielberg knows he has to earn his audience’s trust to get that self -indulgent place, and the only way they will experience the awe he wants them to feel, is if they make a journey with that main character.
In Close Encounters, Roy Neary is a blue collar everyman figure. His brief glimpse of the strange spacecrafts that zoom over his small Indiana hometown one night become his obsession. He risks losing his wife and kids to pursue this compulsion. He’s for intents and purpose a Biblical prophet; the angels have spoke to him and he is trying to make sense of the vision he has had. Alongside Roy, we have Jillian, a single mother whose toddler son seems to be of interest to these aliens and is subsequently taken from her. In these two characters we have core human emotions: A primal need to protect our children and a desire to make sense out of the mystery encountered in life. As Roy and Jillian pursue their goals, we are shown a research team globe trotting and discovering direct evidence of the aliens’ presence on earth. Now, the majority of the budget was obviously spent on the globe trotting and its only the finale that the general populace remembers, when Roy and Jillian finally reach their destination. The scene that gets mimicked the most popular culture is Roy shaping mashed potatoes at the dinner table. What stuck with us about Spielberg’s films are the human effects.
Abrams, unlike a bevy of other studios and directors, seems to understand that essential element of Spielberg’s films. In Super 8, we spend a much longer time on the building of characters and relationships than throwing explosion heavy scene after scene at the audience. The final is when the big spectacle occurs, and up until then we are learning about Joe and Alice, our two leads. Do we learn every bit and piece of motivation behind the alien monster? Nope. Do we learn why the creature was being transported on the train? Nope. Do I care? Nope. Modern blockbusters seem to have forgotten the lovely mystery of Spielberg’s films. Close Encounters gives us only the merest of answers and is still one of the richest and thought provoking films Spielberg has ever produced.
I remember reading an interview with screenwriter John August on the eve of Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory being released, where August (the film’s screenwriter) talked about adding an entire back story for Willy Wonka because he felt the character’s motivation needed to be understood by the audience. That single comment turned me off from wanting to see the film. It showed a complete lack of understanding about what made people love the story in the first place. Ambiguity is your friend, and its something we like in our films. Don’t tie up every loose end, leave the audience with some things they can ponder. It’s that mystery that makes films like Close Encounters and Super 8 the kind of movies that stay with you, are absorbed into your brain, and inform you about a way of seeing the world.