A lonely night sky looms over a sleeping suburban town when, suddenly, a high-speed train interrupts the serene moment as it screams down the tracks. From the opposite direction, a pick-up truck smashes through a railroad-crossing gate and accelerates onto the tracks towards the oncoming train. What follows next is the most visually dazzling movie train wreck since Cecil B. DeMille wreaked similar locomotive havoc in his 1952 Best Picture winner, The Greatest Show on Earth.
Whereas DeMille utilized a combination of miniatures and live action footage to recreate his now iconic cinematic crash, the most recent visual spectacle found in the teaser trailer for last summer’s most anticipated release, Super 8, is a purely digital creation. This comes with little surprise since Steven Spielberg, the legendary filmmaker behind such quintessential special effect wonders like Jurassic Park and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, is one of the cinematic conductors of the new train wreck. Cited by Spielberg in Joseph McBride’s biography as the first movie he ever saw and his “cinematic inspiration,” The Greatest Show on Earth and its celebrated sequence was honored with a breathtaking, but curiously blatant tribute last summer.
Spielberg is never one to cave into such obvious references films of Hollywood’s past. Sure, War of the Worlds was a remake of the 1953 sci-fi flick, but the presence of the Spielberg trademark father-son conflict and some staggeringly realistic CGI in his 2005 re-imagining render his film as exactly that- a fresh re-imagining of the original. Even in his Indiana Jones quadrilogy, which took its inspiration from 1950s adventure serials, the only films that the director found himself directly borrowing from when the fourth film rolled around were his previous three installments.
After nearly four decades of astronomical success and infinitely creative work in the movie business, it begs the question- why would Spielberg resort to the obvious pastiche now? The answer can be found in one name: J.J. Abrams. The young filmmaker has taken Hollywood by storm in the past decade, whether it be television, with his enormously successful creations Alias and Lost, or more recently in film, with the mammoth summer blockbuster Star Trek. Indeed, Abrams’ emphasis on the spectacular and the unknown in his work, coupled with the blockbuster status that he has reached at a young age, must remind Spielberg of a filmmaker who achieved similar heights of success early in his career; himself.
Super 8 certainly borrows heavily from the Spielbergian themes and iconography of extraterrestrial life. As the teaser depicts, the U.S. Air Force is transporting materials from the recently defunct Area 51 to a secure facility in Ohio. Naturally, a stunning train crash prevents the cargo from reaching its desired destination. The trailer concludes with a cacophony of screeches and heavy thuds as the contents of an overturned train wagon attempts to break out of its no longer mobile prison cell.
In an attention grabbing intertitle, it is Abrams who is credited as the film’s director and Spielberg who is taking the backseat as the film’s producer. In a surprising and bold career move, Spielberg seems to have embraced his role as the “Godfather of Cinema.” Of course, he has mentored a plethora of inexperienced filmmakers before, including SCA alum Robert Zemeckis. On the other hand, when Spielberg took in the young Trojan as his protégé, Zemeckis was not the established box office titan that Abrams now is.
Spielberg must surely see his equal in Abrams. Both directors can effortlessly incorporate the subtle emotions of a small human drama into the bombastic scope of a studio backed action spectacle. Both directors, through equal amounts of talent and luck, managed to reach the pinnacle of the Hollywood caste system at an astonishingly young age. With Super 8, Abrams is not only in the enviable position of receiving the creative torch that Spielberg has carried for more than three decades, he is also being knighted as the new king of the box office. The trailer is proof that the legendary filmmaker is grooming Abrams to continue the task that Spielberg so successfully accomplished- to become the next DeMille. Furthermore, Abrams’ impressive screenwriting credits represent a facet of filmmaking that Spielberg has attempted to but has never been able to master. The filmmaker can utilize the literary talents of Abrams to help catapult him even higher into the upper echelons of movie and box-office history. Leave it to Steven Spielberg to discover a potentially lucrative footnote to his transition of power.