Friday Night Seitz
Slide show: As "Super 8" hits theaters, we look at how America's most famous director influenced cinema
“Super 8″ (2011)
Written and directed by J.J. Abrams
Of all the movies produced but not directed by Steven Spielberg, this creature feature from J.J. Abrams (“Lost,” the “Star Trek” reboot) is the most unabashedly Spielbergian. In fact, with its analog-era 1979 setting, kids-on-a-mission story line, lens-flare-crazy anamorphic photography, self-referential asides about filmmaking, and copious quotes from Spielberg’s most popular pictures, it feels almost — almost — like a lost, minor classic by the master himself. The main tell of modernity is the escaped e.t. that menaces the movie’s small Ohio town, and whose mysterious origins are revealed by various snippets of small-gauge film stock (first the Super 8mm footage captured by the intrepid young filmmakers, then some 16mm footage from a government subversive). Although the beast is distinctively designed, it’s obviously the product of circa 2011 computer graphics, whereas if it were a 1979 monster, it would have been some sort of audio animatronic puppet or miniature.
All in all, though, “Super 8″ is an impressive work of heartfelt (sometimes gooey-sentimental) homage, one that likely could not have been made in exactly this way, with exactly these emphases, without Spielberg himself producing. And if it had come out in the late ’70s or early ’80s — the last era in which Spielberg actively and unself-consciously made these sorts of slightly hard-edged but basically family-friendly adventures — it might have been a box-office flop, because it spends 90 percent of its running time detailing the grief and mourning of a boy (Joel Courtney) who lost his mother in a steel mill accident, and a girl (Elle Fanning) whose drunken dad (Ron Eldard) might have played a role in the tragedy. It doesn’t even give us a good look at the beast until the climax (the original “Jaws” wasn’t nearly so stingy!), and instead treats it as a noisy but peripheral metaphor for the survivors’ suppressed rage at the unfairness of life. The film’s press notes reveal that Abrams and his childhood friend Matt Reeves (director of “Let Me In,” also covered in this slide show) were amateur Super 8 filmmakers, and were so good at it that they attracted the attention of Spielberg, who hired the duo to edit his own home movies. Once you know that bit of trivia, Abrams’ and Reeves’ obsession with replicating the look and tone of pre-digital blockbusters makes perfect sense.
Written and directed by Kevin Reynolds
Set in 1971, writer-director Kevin Reynolds’ “Fandango” is the story of four friends who go on an epic road trip through the American Southwest with various adult responsibilities hanging over their heads (notably marriage and Vietnam service) and who eventually transition into something resembling maturity and wisdom. Certain bits (notably the one where the buddies try to hitch their car to a passing freight train) have the overscaled robustness of such big-budget 1970s comedies as John Landis’ “Animal House” and “The Blues Brothers.” But the guiding sensibility is Spielberg’s — which should come as no surprise, considering the important role that Spielberg played in Reynolds’ career.
Spielberg’s first professional movie, the 1968 student short “Amblin,” was about a secretly conservative young man posing as a hippie while hitchhiking through the desert. “Fandango” feels in many ways like a belated, feature-length expansion of “Amblin,” which gave Spielberg his production company name. Spielberg offered to produce “Fandango” at Amblin after seeing Reynolds’ 1980 University of Southern California thesis film, “Proof,” a comic short about a skydiving misadventure. Reynolds re-created the latter in a memorable sequence of “Fandango.”
“The Host” (2006)
Written by Baek Chul-hyun and Bong Joon-ho; directed by Bong Joon-ho
This thriller about a pollution-spawned amphibious creature running amok in Seoul has the bright energy of Spielberg’s career-making 1975 thriller “Jaws,” but the plot reaches back further in literary history, alluding to “Moby-Dick” and the Bible. The reluctant hero, Park Gang-du (Song Kang-ho), is a humble food vendor struggling to rescue his daughter, who was taken during one of the beast’s rampages. Director Bong Joon-ho concentrates on the family’s struggle against the monster, but fills the margins with political allegory about the literally and figuratively toxic effect of the U.S. Army’s presence in South Korea. It’s a remarkable work, equal parts Godzilla movie, 1970s disaster flick, and early-Spielberg-style, up-tempo modern adventure.
“Let Me In” (2010)
Written and directed by Matt Reeves
This American remake of the 2008 Swedish vampire film relocates the original movie’s action to a New Mexico town circa 1983. Why? Probably because that’s when writer-director Matt Reeves (b. 1966) started developing a serious interest in films, and the era’s reigning box office champ and stylistic influence was a fellow named Spielberg. In 1982 alone, Spielberg directed “E.T.” and ghost-directed “Poltergeist”; if you could somehow put the two films together in a style blender and add a dollop of Anne Rice, the result would look, sound and feel like “Let Me In.” From the moody, silhouette-and-chiaroscuro-obsessed photography to the mournful score to the frequent (and very expressive) use of lens flares, Reeves’ horror remake feels like the picture Spielberg might have directed when he was a mopey but romantic adolescent — provided, of course, that he had a few million dollars to throw around, and the stones to stage a set piece as flat-out awesome as this kidnapping gone awry.
“Galaxy Quest” (1999)
Written by David Howard and Robert Gordon; directed by Dean Parisot
One of DreamWorks’ biggest early hits, as well as one of its best-directed movies, “Galaxy Quest” pulls off that nifty Spielberg trick of coming on like a sly parody of a certain genre (in this case, the original “Star Trek” franchise) and then evolving into a fine and surprisingly unironic example of the thing being mocked. Tim Allen, Sigourney Weaver, Alan Rickman, Tim Shalhoub and Sam Rockwell play cast members of a long-defunct TV show who are mistaken for real space warriors by oppressed creatures that have been monitoring Earth broadcasts. They zoom into battle in a spaceship built to precisely mimic the fictional show’s ship; in time, the actors become their roles and rediscover not just their optimism, but their dormant human potential. The plot owes a bit to Joe Dante’s ungainly but very likable one-joke comedy “Explorers” (1985), in which Earth kids encounter an alien race whose civilization is based around the obsessive study of American TV. This blend of action, comedy, spectacular effects, gentle parody and unexpected moments of darkness (including the horrifying, albeit mostly implied, torture of one space creature by another) would be unthinkable without Spielberg’s example, even though the man himself had very little to do with “Galaxy Quest.”
“The Iron Giant” (1999)
Written by Tim McCanlies; directed by Brad Bird
Before writer-director Brad Bird (“The Incredibles,” “Ratatouille”) became a big-name feature filmmaker, he was a Steven Spielberg prot
“Independence Day” (1996)
Written by Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin; directed by Roland Emmerich
“Independence Day” borrows imagery from numerous Spielberg pictures (especially “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and the Indiana Jones films) and gloms it together with a plot that shares “The X-Files”‘ fixation on Area 51, the top-secret New Mexico base where the U.S. military allegedly stores crashed alien spaceships, top-secret military aircraft or other sci-fi goodies. (According to the fourth Indiana Jones film, the government houses the Ark of the Covenant there, too.) The mix of swashbuckling action, political intrigue and soap opera subplots (Will the cable TV producer reconcile with his grump dad? Will the hotshot pilot marry his stripper girlfriend?) is goofy and tonally weird. But damned it if isn’t also engrossing and fun, even when the plot is spiraling into Ed Wood-level nonsense. (It’s a good thing the aliens’ computer system is Macintosh compatible, eh?) The end product feels like one of those Spielberg sequels that Spielberg likely did to keep his box office average up rather than because his heart was really in it.
Written by Chris Columbus; directed by Joe Dante
Along with “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom,” “Gremlins” is one of two violent summer-of-’84 films that inspired the creation of the PG-13 rating. But where Spielberg and George Lucas’ first Indiana Jones sequel leavens its horror with moral lessons, and slowly leads viewers out of the darkness and into the light, “Gremlins” stays irreverent pretty much all the way through. Although it’s executive produced by Spielberg and wouldn’t have gotten made without his involvement, it’s a lot darker and more counterculture-infused than anything Spielberg directed himself. It’s a barbed-wire Christmas tree adorned with strands of Spielberg popcorn and Frank Capra tinsel. The setup — cute, fuzzy Mogwai morphs into multiple razor-fanged Gremlins — suggests a suppressed id erupting into being and subjugating the world. Heroine Phoebe Cates’ notorious monologue about why she hates Christmas is the most anti-Spielberg moment in a film bearing Spielberg’s name.
Written and directed by Boaz Yakin
This debut movie by Boaz Yakin (“Remember the Titans”) is hugely indebted to “Yojimbo,” “A Fistful of Dollars,” “Miller’s Crossing” and other thrillers about a quiet, somewhat unreadable protagonist who pits warring gangs against each other until both sides are destroyed. The tone (more intellectual than emotional) isn’t terribly Spielbergian. Nor is the film’s hero (Sean Nelson), the son of a homeless chess master (Samuel L. Jackson); Spielberg didn’t dare put an opaque and somewhat unnerving child at the center of a film until his Stanley Kubrick tribute “A.I.” (2001). But stylistically, “Fresh” is Spielberg to the core. Every composition, camera move, music cue and cut seems to have been pre-visualized, with lots of thought devoted to exactly what information we receive, how we receive it, and how much is shown. Just look at this terrifying sequence on the playground, which traumatizes the film’s hero and inspires his long-term plan to wipe out the neighborhood drug gangs. The slow-building sense of menace (conveyed as much through reaction shots and sound effects as through imagery) is vintage Spielberg. And the scene’s climactic tracking shot across the playground’s pavement, slowly revealing the extent of the carnage, suggests that Yakin prepared for this movie by watching “Jaws” about 50 times.
“Almost Famous” (2000)
Written and directed by Cameron Crowe
Although Spielberg isn’t totally opposed to showing sex or other R-rated behavior, he has an old-school sense of decorum. So does writer-director Cameron Crowe, the auteur behind the immensely likable but oddly neutered “Almost Famous.” Based on Crowe’s experience as a 15-year-old correspondent for Rolling Stone, and released by Dreamworks SKG, the studio Spielberg co-founded, “Almost Famous” is very Spielbergian in tone, albeit far less visually adventurous than the master’s work. At times it feels like the rock ‘n’ roll coming-of-age story that Spielberg might have made in the early 1980s, before the back-to-back release of “The Color Purple” (1985) and “Empire of the Sun” (1987) established that he craved respect as well as success.
As baby-faced correspondent William Miller (Patrick Fugit) covers a tour by ascendant rock gods Stillwater, we’re told that all manner of R-rated behavior is happening around him. But we almost never see it. The group is a composite of the Allman Brothers Band, Led Zeppelin and Lynyrd Skynyrd (all of whom Crowe covered for Rolling Stone). But on-screen drug use is minimal, the band seems more lovable than dangerous, and Stillwater’s sweet, peppy groupies (called Band-Aids, and exemplified by Kate Hudson’s Penny Lane) seem like the 1970s version of World War II-era bobby-soxers. (They’ll give oral sex, or so we’re told, but they won’t have intercourse unless they really, really like somebody — and when they swarm William like the sirens of Homer, Crowe tactfully fades out rather than show debauchery.) Miller’s smart, tough, self-righteous mom (Frances McDormand) provides the hero’s moral compass and sets the tone for the film. She’s based on Crowe’s own mom, who was on set during much of the production. The result is a Spielbergian oxymoron: a movie about the rock ‘n’ roll life that your mom (or grandmother) would love.
“Back to the Future” (1985)
Written by Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale; directed by Robert Zemeckis
The original “Back to the Future” has all the qualities that viewers associate with early Spielberg, plus many more that Spielberg wouldn’t dare touch. It’s got verbal wit, slapstick, suspense, romance, cultural critique and a plot that inspires post-screening discussions about time travel and alternate realities. It’s an entertainment machine, elaborately constructed and relentlessly paced. But the film also has a really nasty streak that announces itself through the character of braying school bully Biff Tannen (Thomas F. Wilson). And it’s naughtier than anything Spielberg ever tried. Much of the story revolves around the Oedipal conundrum of cool 1980s teenager Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) trying to hook up his mom (Lea Thompson) and dad (Crispin Glover) in order to ensure his future existence. Problem is, Marty’s mom would rather sleep with Marty. Marty’s conflicted reactions (instinctive teenage lust plus primal revulsion) have no equivalent in mainstream movies; it’s the sort of gag that only a career sicko like Roman Polanski would dare attempt. Spielberg is credited as executive producer on this film and contributed a number of ideas, but it’s Zemeckis and Gale’s movie. Its Spielbergian qualities must have arrived via osmosis.
Every Friday, Salon writer Matt Zoller Seitz sifts through beloved classics and obscure indies for a slide show that sheds light on the hidden connections and most fascinating moments in film and TV history.