“I gotta help Charles finish his movie” – The healing power of cinema in Super 8

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To some people there’s nothing more yawnsome than films about films: they find them smug, solipsistic and self-congratulatory. But the reality is that cinema evokes a very romantic response from a large number of people, and I for one love films which celebrate the art form whilst simultaneously telling a ripping yarn.

There are a number of films like this. Cinema Paradiso is perhaps the best loved movie about the love of movies. Scream is a very effective slasher film whilst also being a lovingly crafted tribute to the genre. And then there is JJ Abrams’ Super 8 (2011). The film follows a bunch of high-schoolers on summer break who are shooting a home-made zombie flick when they accidentally witness – and record – a massive train wreck… and something otherworldly escaping from the wreckage.

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Super 8 is about movies in a number of ways. Firstly, it works as a nostalgic tribute to the films that have gone before it. With it’s “kids-on-an-adventure” theme, it’s the clear cinematic off-spring of E.T, The Goonies and Stand by Me. It makes a lot of sense that JJ Abrams has since been entrusted with resurrecting the Star Wars universe: watching Super 8 it’s clear this man eats, lives and breathes the cinematic heritage of childhood adventure movies. The fact that Super 8 was also exec produced by Spielberg further underlines this: it very much feels like a handing of the baton to the next generation.

Secondly, if this cinematic heritage exists in the film’s themes, then Super 8 is even bolder in having film-making as a central plot point. In the early scenes where the kids bond over shooting their movie – The Case, a no-budget Romero homage – there is a sense where their childhood is linked and somewhat defined by cinema. Charles’ bedroom is filled with movie magazines and a Dawn of the Dead poster, and they spend their time trying to shoot the perfect zombie short. The kids also use film-making as way of escaping their own dysfunctional lives: alcoholic father, family tragedy. This layering of childhood and film takes on a meta-layer when you watch The Case in the post credits sequence, and consider it was actually shot by the young cast themselves on a super-8mm camera.

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Finally, Super 8 is about the healing power of cinema itself. The film opens with Joe losing his mum to an industrial accident and his emotional arc is very much about dealing with this loss, in part through cinema. As well as helping Charles with his zombie movie – a film about death, and indeed life after death – there is a pivotal scene where Joe and would-be girlfriend Alice watch an old home-movie of his mum. As they stare, teary eyed at the projected image, Joe is able to finally open his heart and pour out his bottled feelings. Whilst his father is emotionally repressed and unable to handle his own grief, it is through the medium of film that Joe finds his catharsis, and ultimately his healing.

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That’s the magic of the movies right there. Somehow, that by making, or even just watching films, you can enter into the inner place of your heart and unlock the things which you couldn’t access any other way. And by building on the rich history of other cinematic childhoods, Super 8 invites us into this narrative: to be children once again, to be vulnerable and open up. To find your catharsis. To find your healing.

Published by Tim Coleman

Film critic. Screenwriter. Academic.

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