The Super 8 secret: digital nostalgia
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Retro-obsessed mid-lifers can rejoice in Super 8's 'VHS' factor...
Mysterious sci-fi film Super 8 has pleased both critics and film-goers, earning positive reviews and impressive box-office figures since its release in the US.
Although the film’s main secret has been kept under wraps, what we can tell from clips is that it is set in seventies small-town America and revolves around a group of children who witness an explosive train crash while shooting a short film. In the aftermath of the accident the town comes under attack from a mysterious force. That threat, however, is not disclosed.
Unlike Mission: Impossible III (2006) and his successful reboot of Star Trek (2009), Super 8 is director J.J. Abrams' first original production. Watching its trailer, however, you can’t help but get a feeling of déjà vu.
We are shown images of explosions, houses being torn apart and general destruction alternating with the wide-eyed wonder of the young protagonists.
The images bring to mind the work of that other blockbuster mastermind Steven Spielberg, specifically ET (1982). Although some critics have drawn comparison to his other sci-fi masterpiece, Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), the scenes of destruction in Super 8 are more akin to Spielberg’s adaptation of War of the Worlds (2005).
These films are all set in small town America and ET also starred a cast of youthful characters. By adding the interesting theme of a film within a film through the children’s amateur production - shot on Super 8mm – Abrams further emphasises Spielberg’s past trait of capturing the world through the eyes of a child.
Despite the odd new element in the narrative, it wouldn’t be out of place to view Super 8 as a reboot of some of Spielberg’s most beloved themes, if not a specific film. Interestingly, Spielberg himself is credited as a producer on the film, which is most likely a nod to his obvious influence.
However, as the prolonged interest and general hype surrounding Super 8 has shown, Abrams has managed to take these familiar elements and popularise them once more. This is mainly because the director, like Spielberg, knows how to generate interest in his films. Abrams accomplishes this by not giving away too much, a strategy used once again during the marketing campaign for Super 8.
Abrams initially used this tight-lipped trick for Cloverfield (2008), the found-footage monster movie he produced. All that could be seen in the trailer was a mysterious ‘thing’ attacking buildings and people. He also built anticipation to fever pitch during Lost (2004-2010), the television series he co-created with Damon Lindelof and Jeffrey Lieber.
The first Super 8 teaser trailer, released over a year ago, showed the aforementioned train wreck and its resultant unloading of a sealed metal container marked property of the ‘US government’.
Following that, little more was released, but the online fervour was already under way as the video went viral. The Internet was subsequently rife with debate about this mysterious collaboration between uber-geeks Spielberg and Abrams.
Among the other interesting titbits released by the film-makers in the months leading up to Super 8’s release was a fake letter from Captain "Coop" Cooper and 'The Rocket Poppeteers', as well as a suitably retro site to go with it.
Like the letter, the most intriguing marketing techniques had a meta aspect to them. For example, the Super 8 smartphone app emulated an actual Super 8mm camera, allowing users to record through a number of lenses – x-ray, negative, sepia etc – and edit their footage into a short film. The app had the relevant film reel sound effects and even paused to load whilst the film ‘developed’.
Talking of short films, Elle Fanning – one of the young stars of the film – recently mentioned that the film within a film in Super 8 would be shown during the end credits.
All these factors combined have resulted in a campaign that has continuously created word of mouth, in particular through the use of digital methods.
However, It takes more than inventive marketing to get a blockbuster crowd into a non-franchise film without the aid of any big stars during the peak summer season. But somehow Abrams has managed it, with the film having grossed $127 million at the US box office.
In this case it is familiarity that has driven cinema-goers to Super 8. A sense of longing for an innocent past still evokes the sentimental side in us all. Now more than ever, those same children who were amazed by Spielberg’s ET are seeking to recapture that past in all forms of popular culture. Hollywood is more than happy to cater to this demographic, giving them a constant supply of eighties remakes and reboots.
Abrams has his finger on the pulse of the cultural Zeitgeist and this is his response. Furthermore, his skill of employing digital marketing is unmatched and further capitalises upon the interests of the tech-savvy demographic he is targeting.
The Spielberg stamp of approval also tends to aid a film that might otherwise be a hard sell. However, where the former was criticised for employing a cute and cuddly main character in ET as a means to sell toys, Abrams has avoided any such glaring spin-off techniques. What he has done instead is try to sell his audience the world of the film. And through the use of digital media he has made these filmic extensions all the more interactive. Thanks to Abrams we can all film using 8mm through the convenience of our smart-phones and we can visit nostalgic websites that emulate the appearance of our favourite childhood treats. And all this before we have even entered the cinema.
Therefore in Super 8 you have the perfect marriage of old sensibilities with modern innovation. All the hype would be completely useless, however, if the film wasn’t any good. But judging by audience and critic reaction, Abrams, like Spielberg before him, has pulled it off.
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