On a wet, nasty Wednesday evening in New York, Paramount CEO Brad Grey, J.J. Abrams and the rest of the studio’s team gathered a group of journalists and other VIPs for a showing of select scenes from Abrams’s much-anticipated summer blockbuster Super 8. By the power of Film School Rejects, I had the privilege of attending the fete at Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater.
Grey first took the stage. In between jokes about “springtime” in NYC and a heartfelt tribute to the late Elizabeth Taylor, he got down to the business at hand: celebrating the studio’s unequivocally notable turnaround under his nearly six-year stewardship. Noting the Mount’s annual blend of tentpoles, smaller franchises and Academy Award-worthy fare, the boss pointedly stressed the personal importance he placed in upholding the legacy of one of Hollywood’s iconic institutions in this, its 100th year.
After an extended promotional montage connecting Paramount films of old with the 2011 slate – - which includes Martin Scorsese’s Hugo Cabret, Steven Spielberg’s The Adventures of Tin Tin and sequels to Paranormal Activity and Transformers — Abrams, the man of the hour, got up to speak.
He spoke about the genesis of Super 8, which combined two long- gestating ideas: A film about youths making 8mm movies during the ’80s and the story of a train carrying a top-secret Area 51 shipment derailing in Ohio. (SPOILERS OVER FOR NOW)
Gulping water while speaking quickly, Abrams told us the idea of showing footage this early “makes him nuts,” repeatedly cautioning against reading too much into the scenes we were about to watch, the latter of which was not even finished in post. Still, there was no getting out of it for the man Grey venerated as one of the company’s cinematic beacons. After all, there was one question on every attendee’s mind: Could the footage possibly hold up to the lofty standards created by the Abrams brand and the high expectations created by the mysterious, evocative trailer?
The answer: An unequivocal yes. The footage we saw — a blend of kinetic action and classic E.T./Stand by Me flavored nostalgia — simultaneously hearkened back to a simpler, eloquent cinematic era while remaining rooted in the big-budgeted here and now.
(SPOILER WARNING AGAIN) Set in small-town Ohio circa 1979, the scenes we saw centered first on young teen protagonist Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney), a lonely kid left with his remote father (Kyle Chandler) after his mother passes away. He and his friends, eight-millimeter aficionados, drive off to shoot a scene for their movie at the town’s train station, where a heartfelt scene is interrupted by a major, fiery train derailment. (SPOILERS OVER AGAIN)
Abrams draws on newcomer Courtney’s inherent, sensitive likability to bring a strong human touch to the scene. The star is instantly captivating, making his budding feelings for another character powerfully felt. When combined with a deep-rooted feel for the time and place, rounded out with characters that register and rife with a youthful sense of wonder and possibility, it’s a winning, grabbing way in.
It’s got the innocence of movies wedded to such “old-fashioned” assets as character and tone, with the wide-angled, vast scope one expects of a major summer blockbuster. The destruction that follows is of an enormous, intense scale, posing a perilous series of obstacles and making clear that none of Abrams’s budget went to waste.
In all, though the sequence (which Abrams admits still needs editing) runs too long, it forecasts a film that deftly balances its twin obsessions and suggests that the filmmaker has developed beyond what was his Achilles heel: An over-reliance on flat, close-up action. It moves and breathes and is unquestionably cinematic.
The second sequence we were shown, a variation on the age-old monster (not yet seen) attacks the gas station set-up, entertains in its adherence to suspenseful standard, but lacks the gravitas of what comes before it.
Still, the presentation made for an impressive debut. If it’s any overall indication, Super 8 might really offer the memorable summer movie experience the trailers and all the rest of the advance hype have promised. Find out for yourself on June 10th.