The Adventure Continues With Super 8
Will JJ Abram's new movie reinvigorate the adventure genre?
If one word can be used to sum up late 1970s and 80s mainstream Hollywood cinema, it is almost certainly ‘adventure’.
Spectacles such as the original Star Wars and Indiana Jones trilogies dominated box office sales, not to mention the overwhelming success of films such as The Goonies, The Princess Bride, Back To The Future and E.T., as well as the first cinematic adaptations of the Star Trek television series.
Truly, this was the golden age of the adventure movie. Such pictures not only appealed to the mass market – children and adults alike – but inspired a whole new generation of aspirant film directors.
One such cinephile was JJ Abrams, who went on to co-create the Lost television series, direct films like Mission: Impossible III and produce the innovative thriller Cloverfield. Abrams' latest directorial outing is Super 8, which is set for general release on August 5.
Super 8 is Abrams' much anticipated love letter to early Spielberg adventure flicks. The quasi-autobiographical movie takes place in 1979 (very much Spielberg’s cinematic sandbox – see Jaws, Close Encounters and E.T.) and tells the tale of a group of American youngsters who sneak out at night to shoot their own DIY horror film, before witnessing a violent train crash and the escape of a mysterious monster.
As retro as it appears to be, the release of the film will surely come as something of a breath of fresh air. Adventure movies produced during the past decade have been derivative at best, stale money-spinners at worst.
The genre has been typified by crass and unnecessary remakes (Clash of the Titans), tacked on lacklustre sequels (Indian Jones: Kingdom of the Crystal Skull), an emphasis on poorly-executed 3D effects and endlessly misguided decisions from George Lucas, serving only to alienate his fan base.
That’s not to say that recent cinema has been totally devoid of the spirit of adventure – it has cropped up in some strange and unexpected places, such as self-confessed Lucas/Spielberg fanboy Joe Cornish’s monster movie, Attack The Block.
While Attack the Block is very much an urban sci-fi/horror film, rather than an adventure picture, it is definitely horror for the Goonies Generation. The film, whilst gritty and visceral, demonstrates a tremendous amount of heart as it follows a group of inner city hoods attempt to cope with an alien invasion.
As with Richard Donner’s swashbuckling classic, Cornish's group isn’t always likeable. However, throughout the film their hardships become clearer, barriers come crashing down and friendships become stronger.
Another recent film that has at least in part evoked the spirit of these classic adventure movies is Garth Jenning’s Son of Rambow. This heartfelt tale of pre-teen moviemaking certainly draws parallels with Super 8, in that the action follows a mismatched pair of schoolboys as they strive to create their own sequel to Rambo: First Blood to enter in the BBC Screen Test competition.
As with E.T. and Close Encounters, the success of Son of Rambow hinged on the audience's ability to believe in the hidden world bubbling away beneath our own, only just out of sight, along with the emotional journey – the archetypal 'quest' story arc – of the protagonist. Those early films were so successful because they managed to convince us, the audience, that we had gone on that journey too.
These ideas are paramount when considering what makes a successful adventure movie. In recent times, the focus has been on big action sequences and multi-million dollar CGI visual effects, which all too often lack the impact of 80s effects because of the very fact that they are virtual, rather than merely synthetic.
However, the best films of the genre succeed by combining white-knuckle action with realistic emotional impact. Growing up, rebellion and rites of passage are essential as we make the awkward transition from childhood to adulthood. Indeed, even in The Last Crusade (arguably the finest of the Indiana Jones films), the most interesting and emotionally engaging dynamic is that between Indie as a grown man and his father, played by Sean Connery. Heated discussions of Indiana’s youth pepper and provoke the action.
That being said, it isn’t all about teenage emotion and angst. And here is where the real kicker lies: while such adventure films are often thought of as children’s films, they are frequently aimed at adults also, full, as they are, of violence, sexual tension and the occasional swear word.
Rather than the modern trait of making children’s films with bright colours and a few hidden innuendos for the adults to laugh at, these classic films treated their younger audience members to something different entirely – the same respect afforded to grown ups.
Indeed, this a key theme in Super 8, suggesting again that Abrams is all too aware of what makes a high calibre movie in this genre.
Will Super 8 pave the way for an adventure renaissance? Probably not. But hopefully it will serve as more than just an homage to this golden-hued era in cinematic history, and will be a great adventure in its own right.