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Abrams, Spielberg and Super 8: The Amblin Effect

by Dominic Corry, from Eating Movies, April 27 2011,

J.J. Abrams’ upcoming blockbuster Super 8 (released in New Zealand on June 9th) is an acknowledged love letter to one of Abrams’ idols – Steven Spielberg, who is a producer on the film. More specifically, Abrams is seeking to recreate the tone of the movies released under the Amblin Entertainment banner, which comprise some of the most ‘Spielbergian’ films ever made.

Amblin Entertainment was the production company co-founded by Steven Spielberg in 1981. Through it, Spielberg developed films for he himself to direct, but he also shepherded numerous projects which were sold on his name but directed by other burgeoning talents.

Some of the best-loved films of the 80s were Amblin productions – movies like Back to the Future; Gremlins; The Goonies and Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Through Amblin, Spielberg cultivated the careers of such awesome directors as Joe Dante and Robert Zemeckis.

Amblin films helped establish exactly what was meant by the term ‘Spielbergian’ – wide-eyed suburban fantasies equally influenced by Rod Serling (Creator of the The Twilight Zone and another of Abrams’ idols); Norman Rockwell and the innumerable sci-fi B-movies that entranced baby boomers as they grew up on television.

If one grouping of films could comprise everything I loved about movies growing up, it would be those made by Amblin.

Then in 1994, Spielberg (along with David Geffen and Jeffrey Katzenberg) started up his own studio, Dreamworks SKG. Amblin continued to exist, and Dreamworks even occupied it’s office space on the Universal lot, but something changed in the films Spielberg lent his name to.

From many angles, I’ve always been more interested in films produced, but not directed, by Spielberg. In the Amblin era, this often meant that great story ideas avoided Spielberg’s sometimes overly sentimental approach, but were still informed by his innate understanding of the needs and wants of the popular audience.

In the Dreamworks era, the genre films Spielberg oversaw started to take a turn for the crappy. Instead of radness like Arachnophobia or Who Framed Roger Rabbit, we got turds like The Time Machine and The Haunting.

Whether or not it was down to the pressures of running a studio, or Spielberg’s stumbling attempts to “mature” as a filmmaker, in my eyes, the sheen came off the Spielberg brand.

When Amblin was releasing films in the 80s, they were seen as pretty frivolous exercises, despite their huge financial success. Nowadays, they are looked back upon as classics of the genre that more or less dominates modern cinema.

I may have been pretty young when I first saw the likes of Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Gremlins, but I’m sure that’s not why I view them as clear superiors to their modern equivalents (uh, Avatar and Transformers 2) – they’re simply better movies.

The very late 70s-to-mid 80s were a glorious time for genre filmmaking, which had just secured it’s dominance of the marketplace thanks to Star Wars and Jaws. Studios were well on their way to the bland corporate mindset they currently embody, but some of the old moguls still had positions of power, and they trusted their gut when they recognised talent.

Okay perhaps I am over-romanticising slightly, but there really is something special about the better genre films that came during this period, of which I’ve only mentioned but a few.

It’s a view clearly shared by Abrams, and indeed driving Super 8‘s existence as a whole – he wants to recapture that magic. I’m all for it.

I found this first teaser to be pretty underwhelming – the train crash and door smashing looked like really cheap CG. But it suggested the presence of some sort of cool monster, so I was instantly onboard.

It’s only the third film directed by J.J. Abrams (after the criminally underappreciated Mission: Impossible III and the undeniably awesome Star Trek reboot), but he’s a director I have pretty much complete faith in at this point. Like Peter Jackson and Guillermo del Toro (and to some extent Spielberg himself I suppose), to me, Abrams has always projected a love of movies first – he’s a total fanboy who also happens to be a very talented writer/director.

When I sense that giddy affection for movies in a director, it’s really the only time I feel I can actually relate to A-level filmmakers. And I like it.

Everything about Super 8 projects this unadulterated love for the magic of certain types of movies, and I can’t wait to see how Abrams executes it.

If you weren’t aware of Super 8‘s Spielbergian leanings before watching the second trailer (below), you certainly would be afterwards.

From the unmistakably Spielbergian music that opens the trailer to the kids on their bikes to the ET-esque G-men storming the small town, everything about this trailer screams Spielberg. It even evokes the image of a young Steven making his own amateur movies, the most famous of which is of course… Amblin’. (When he later named his production company after the short film, he cited the fact that it got him his first contract directing TV at Universal. If you’re interested in spotting early Spielbergisms in the appropriately titled 1968 short, it’s on You Tube here, where the uploader has helpfully misspelled the title.)

I’ve resisted watching the third trailer for Super 8, and I kinda regret watching the second one. That said, Abrams is one of the few A-list filmmakers (Spielberg is another one) who focuses a lot of his efforts on not having everything spoiled in the trailers. Cloverfield (which Abrams produced) was a great example of how much more impact a film can have when some surprises are held back until you’re actually sitting in the theatre.

I love how Spielberg appears to be playing the mentor role in this production just like he did with the best Amblin films. In all the books and press I’ve read about Spielberg over the years, I’ve always gotten the impression that he is a filmmaker who likes to hear how great he is. I can only imagine how excited he got when Abrams proposed Super 8 – the ultimate paean to all things Spielberg.

I am cognisant of the fact that such a openly direct and obvious approach may not be the best way to evoke what Abrams is trying to evoke, but he has the benefit of the doubt from me at this point.

As an unabashed lover of mainstream cinema, I find myself simultaneously nostalgiac for the more innocent genre films of times gone by (such as those made by Amblin) and also the harsher fantasy movies like Predator or Robocop. There are of course exceptions, but most modern genre films tend to sit safely in the middle of these two extremes, rendering them emotionally and viscerally flat.

If nothing else, I just hope that Super 8 injects a little bit more of the auteur back into these kind of movies – a feat I am confident Abrams is capable of.

He talks about some of Super 8′s more specific influences in this great post in the LA Times’ Hero Complex column.

Are you hyped for Super 8? What’s your favourite Amblin film? Do you think any other modern genre movies live up to the classic Amblin movies? Comment below! I implore you!