J.J. Abrams Joins the Club

I saw the movie Super 8 today with low expectations due to the mixed reviews it received.  It was a wonderful movie.  Throughout the entire film I was thinking Spielberg directed, but when the credits rolled, I saw it was J.J. Abrams.

The reason I thought it was Spielberg was because the movie was a movie about growing up posing as a movie about aliens.  It is essentially E.T., if E.T. was a fighter rather than a lover.  I think this is an important film for Abrams, because in so-expertly executing the summer blockbuster bildungsroman, he joins a very elite group.  Spielberg, Lucas, and now, J.J. Abrams.

These three writers and directors have a common vision of American adolescence (and specifically, male adolescence and young manhood).  I think that when Lucas and Spielberg are gone, their most important cinematic legacy will be their representations of growing up (that is, growing up white, suburban, and middle class).  Some of their movies that deal with this idea: E.T., American Graffiti, The Goonies, Star Wars, and now, Super 8.

Their vision of transition from childhood to adulthood is one that feels very true to me: it is tender, violent, honest, and funny.  In all of these movies the kids (usually around 12 years old) are too young to take part in the decision making of the adults around them, but are old enough to be profoundly effected by those decisions.  A crisis always ensues for everyone in the film, and while the adults scramble and bicker, the friendship that binds the kids enables them to work together in a way that often pits them against the adults.

The dialogue is all these movies always seems to unfold exactly the way I remember when I was that age — interruptions, yelling, joking.  But also very honest: the kids have purer motives than the adults.  It is the purity of these motives that enables them to resolve the crisis, but always in doing so, some of their values are compromised, some aspects of their friendships are violated, some adult truths that they were ignorant of are illuminated.  And so, the crisis is solved, but doing so finally requires acting like adults.  The knowledge and pain and triumph that comes from the victory finally pushes them over the cusp, out of childhood and into the earliest stage of adulthood.  Things will never be the same.

Another interesting thing is that in all of these films, there are so few scenes that take place in the school — odd for movies that feature adolescents.  And yet, every one of these films is undeniably about education (ESPECIALLY Star Wars).  I think that taken together, the genre is critical of formal schooling.  Learning happens, but the most meaningful lessons are taken outside the controlled environment of the classroom, out in the real world.

Check out Super 8.


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