Super 8 is the best Steven Spielberg movie to come along in years.
And it isn’t even a Spielberg film.
Spielberg’s name is on the project as executive producer, just as George Lucas’s name is on Spielberg’s Indiana Jones movies as producer. But Super 8 was written and directed by J.J. Abrams, who is better known for his work as a producer of “Lost,” “Alias,” and a variety of other television shows. Nevertheless, it is the most Spielbergian film to come along in many years, a veritable homage to the master of blockbuster films inhabited by pre-adolescent protagonists. Among the Spielberg effects that Abrams incorporates in this science-fiction coming-of-age thriller are the trademark bicycles spinning into getaway mode, the classic suburban settings, the snappy potty-mouthed dialogue among kids, and the Orwellian military bad guys, reminiscent of E.T.
Abrams creates the best kind of suspense, chilling us with the terror of what we don’t see, rather than grossing us out with what we do see–thus doing what Spielberg did so effectively in the first half of Jaws. We know something scary is out there, but it is always obscured by the likes of train cars, bushes, or gas station signs. Our hearts pound and our imaginations run wild as we endure long moments of eerie silence while the camera takes us down paths we would rather not tread. Fearing the unknown is always more terrifying than facing a concrete enemy.
Best of all, Abrams employs the particular kind of coming-of-age storyline for which Spielberg is known. Yes, there’s a monster out there, but the real monster is at home, in the form of an unnamed tension between parent and child that has to be resolved. In this story, the tension begins with a mother’s funeral. Her son Joe (Joel Courtney) is not allowed to associate with Alice (Elle Fanning) because Alice’s father (Ron Eldard), the town loser, was somehow involved in his mother’s death. Joe likes Alice– he likes her a lot!—and that creates tension between the two of them, as well as between Joe and his father (Kyle Chandler), who forbids Joe to see Alice. This iconic conflict between father and child, set against the backdrop of an unknown monstrous intruder, gives this film a satisfying heft.
The story centers on a group of middle-schoolers who have been friends since toddlerhood. Abrams’ kids ring true. They’re precocious and nerdy in a believable, unassuming way. Their dialogue also rings true, throughout. Charlie (Riley Griffiths) has been the leader of the gang. Like Spielberg, who began making movies with his super 8 camera at the age of ten, Charlie wants to make a movie to enter in a local film festival. He enlists his friends as actors, cinematographers, script consultants, and makeup technicians, and he barks at them throughout rehearsals and filming with the commanding voice of an artistic perfectionist. Charlie is a young Spielberg himself.
One evening Charlie takes his cast “on location” to an isolated train depot to film a scene as the train goes by. He’s looking for a dramatic backdrop for his characters’ climactic “hill of beans” speech. (This amounts to an homage within an homage, and it works.) But the train suddenly derails–in the most spectacular wreck ever created on film. Ever. The audience in the screening I attended erupted in spontaneous applause as the final piece of wreckage plopped to the ground.
Then, as another homage to Spielberg, Abrams focuses our attention down to a small piece of bloody wreckage, creates a sense of terror as we suspect what might be underneath it, and follows with a gotcha laugh that releases the pent-up tension that the train wreck built so skillfully. Pure genius. Pure Spielberg. In reality, collaborated Abrams.
The rest of the film becomes a typical kids-versus-the world story as these young people try to figure out what the government is trying to hide about the train and its contents. What isn’t typical, however, is the quality of the dialogue and the acting of the kids. They are stunningly natural and believable. One of my favorite lines: Charlie says, “We need to develop this film right away. I’m gonna go steal some money from my mom.” No hesitation over a moral dilemma. He’s a director. He needs money. And he’s a kid. He gets it.
With the exception of Elle Fanning (whose career has been active, though overshadowed by that of her older sister, Dakota) these are virtually unknown actors, fresh and new and ready to be molded by their director. I expect to see a lot more of them in the near future. The parents, also, are believable and natural. They are too caught up in their own grownup worlds to recognize what is going on with their children. As a result, their kids are free to roam the town, think for themselves, and learn how to make things happen.
The film has a message, and it’s a good one. It argues for overcoming grudges and learning to understand one another. At one point a soldier is lifted by his rifle high into the air. If he holds on, he will die. If he lets go, he will live. Such a simple, subtle message: Let go of the guns. Let go of the grudges. One of Charlie’s characters says, “You do have a choice. We all do!” That’s an important truth to remember, the truth of individual responsibility and freedom.
Super 8 has it all: great entertainment, great characters, great special effects, great story, and a great message portrayed subtly at the micro and macro level. What more can you ask from a movie?
Super 8, directed by J. J. Abrams. Paramount, 2011, 112 minutes.
Super 8 is the best Steven Spielberg movie to come along in years.
Last night, 24 men marched proudly to the sounds of “Pomp and Circumstance” as their loved ones looked proudly on. Peeking out beneath their graduation robes were matching dark green trousers, the only hint of a uniform. This was no ordinary graduation, however. When the valedictorian addressed the crowd, he described the violence he experienced throughout his childhood, culminating in the night he shot and killed three men. The other graduates nodded knowingly. As he publicly addressed his teenaged daughter, whom he had not seen in three years, his voice filled with regret and yearning. But when he spoke of the education program that has transformed his life, his voice filled with power and hope. These are the graduates of Hudson Link, a college degree program sponsored by Mercy College within the walls of the notorious Sing Sing Correctional Facility.
Hudson Link is the only college degree program for prison inmates that is completely funded by private donations. Not a single tax dollar is used to educate these men. In 1996 then-governor George Pataki wisely said, “We are no longer going to use tax dollars to fund college programs in prisons, when middle class New Yorkers are struggling to send their own children to college.” He pulled the plug on PEL grants and other financial aid programs, and college ended for New York inmates.
But some of the men wanted to finish their degrees. They banded together, raised money, found volunteers from the outside to help them, and Hudson Link for Higher Education was born. And then a strange thing started to happen: when their own time, money and effort was being used to run the program, they began taking it more seriously. They studied harder and selected their classes more carefully. As graduate Sean Pica admits, “Before Governor Pataki turned off the tax dollars, I had 119 college credits, but I was nowhere close to a degree. I was just taking classes because it was something to do.”
After Hudson Link was formed, however, Pica earned a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in short order. “I was keenly aware that this money came from people who cared about us and were sacrificing for our education,” he says. In addition, the men must pay a portion of the tuition themselves. It amounts to just $10,but for men who earn 18 cents an hour, that represents a third or more of their income. They are invested. And it makes a difference.
One of the primary differences affects you and me: the startling result as these men are paroled and re-enter the world that you and I inhabit. While two out of three parolees are convicted of another crime within three years, not a single Hudson Link graduate has returned to prison. The national recidivism rate is over 60 percent; the Hudson Link recidivism rate is zero. Nada. Zilch. This is the power of a private education.
Soon Mercy College came on board, and now these men are taking college courses using the same syllabus, the same requirements, and the same professors as students in the civilian campuses of Mercy College. There is one big difference: Better students. I should know–I’m one of the professors. In my day classes on the civilian campus, students trickle in anywhere from 10 to 20 minutes late. They check their phones throughout class, leave to use the bathroom or buy a cup of coffee, and rely heavily on Sparknotes instead of reading their textbooks. As a teacher, it’s frustrating to see how far student behavior has fallen in twenty short years.
By contrast, my Sing Sing students are already in the classroom when I arrive. They respect my time, and they respect me. They’ve read the assignment, sometimes two or three times. Their homework is ready, neatly written in complete sentences. Their classroom demeanor is engaging, and their discussions are remarkable. I leave the classroom energized by their insights.
These students thrive on correction. They thrive on praise. And they thrive on the idea that they are doing something to make their families proud. Many of them are the first in their families to attend college. They are becoming role models for their children, even though they are doing it from within the walls of a maximum security prison. It is a privilege to be part of such a remarkable program.
Last night, after the valedictorian concluded his remarks, Steve Forbes told the graduates, “Wealth is not in material goods. Wealth is in the mind.” He explained, “Oil is just glop. You can’t drink it, eat it, or feed it to a camel. But a human mind figured out how to turn that glop into energy.” He offered another example. “Silicon is just sand. You find tons of it on every beach. But a human mind figured out how to turn that sand into a micro chip, and completely transformed our world.” He regaled the men with numerous stories, and encouraged them to use their minds to see things differently and make a difference in the world.
All too soon, the graduation was over. The robes were stored in their boxes, waiting for the class of 2012 to don them next year. The men would soon exchange their crisply ironed shirts and ties for the knit pullovers they wear every day. The dark green trousers continue to identify them as inmates. Cinderella’s coach again became a pumpkin. But that’s just on the outside. On the inside, these men are forever changed–transformed by the power of education.