Nominated for Nothing: Why J.J. Abrams' 'Super 8' deserves more recognition

Super8-1

Image Credit: Francois Duhamel

Just about every year, brilliant movies are utterly ignored by the Oscars. The Searchers, Groundhog Day, Persona, Breathless, Hoop Dreams, The Bourne Supremacy, King Kong, Casino Royale, Touch of Evil, Caddyshack, Mean Streets, The Big Lebowski — the Academy has a long history of overlooking comedies, action movies, horror flicks, hard-boiled genre pics, artsy foreign films, and documentaries that aren’t about World War II. This year, we’ll be taking a closer look at films that were too small, too weird, or perhaps simply too awesome for the Academy Awards. These are the Non-Nominees.

The Film: Super 8, writer-director J.J. Abrams’ love letter to his childhood, and all that that entails: Making Super 8 movies in the 1970s with his newly pubescent friends (including longtime collaborators Bryan Burk, Matt Reeves, and Larry Fong, Super 8‘s director of photography); fantasizing about wild adventures involving dangerous extra-terrestrials and nefarious military conspiracies; and obsessing over the movies of Steven Spielberg, the man who essentially invented the childhoods of a generation of Gen Xers, and who eventually collaborated with Abrams on this film.

Why it Wasn’t Nominated: In another era, it would have been. In 1985, there was another studio summer tent-poll about a normal young kid pulled into a fantastical sci-fi adventure that was produced by Steven Spielberg and directed by a promising Hollywood up-and-comer: Back to the Future. Not only did that film earn nominations for its sound mixing and design, but it also picked up nods for its iconic score and its screenplay.

Of course, Back to the Future was the top grossing film of 1985. While certainly nothing close to a financial failure, Super 8 – sandwiched between two superhero movies last summer — still couldn’t crack the top 20 grossing films of last year. The movie resides in a bizarre netherworld, too human-scaled and story-driven to make a major dent in a cineplex glutted with CG robots, swooning vampires, and long-in-the-tooth pirates, and yet far too geeked out on aliens and tanks and kick-ass train crashes to seem like a credible “awards-worthy film” to the voting members of the Academy.

My colleague Owen Gleiberman has already pointed out how much the Academy has abandoned mainstream box-office success – even the final Harry Potter film couldn’t muster a Best Picture nod, let alone a nod acknowledging the heroic work Steve Kloves has done scripting almost every single one of those films. But what is really depressing is that catering to popular taste at all is apparently enough for Super 8‘s evocative sound design to be overlooked. The train-crash sequence alone is a masterwork of foreboding gusts of wind and crashing, shuddering steel. Then there’s the nimble film editing, the subtle and smart art direction, and Michael Giacchino’s rousing score — not only were these achievements not nominated, they were never even seriously in the conversation about being nominated. And I suspect that had Back to the Future come out in 2011 instead of 1985, it would have faced very much the same fate as Super 8, both at the Oscars and at the box office.

Why History Will Remember It More Fondly Than Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close: Re-watching Super 8 far removed from Abrams’ trademark Mystery Box marketing hoopdedoo, it’s striking just how emotionally affecting the film is, and how honest. There was a lot of grousing about the final design of the film’s sinewy, multi-limbed alien, but what really matters is that climactic confrontation scene between the alien and lead kid Joe (Joel Courtney). Everything we know about Joe from the very first shot of the film leads to this scene, and when Joe and the alien share a painful bond, my tears felt earned. (The alien’s performance, by the by, was guided by actor Bruce Greenwood motion-capture style, à la Andy Serkis in the, ahem, Oscar-nominated Rise of the Planet of the Apes.)

I’m not making the case that Super 8 is the equal of Back to the Future, or its other cinema progenitor, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. But when we yearn for original studio movies that are populated with vivid, relatable characters thrust into a rip-roaring story — a story concerned more with human beings than with cramming in as many digitally rendered creatures, vehicles, explosions, and plot convolutions as the studio suits demand — we’re yearning for a movie like Super 8. More to the point, anyone who spent a weekend pulling out their parents’ Super 8 camera (or Digital 8 camcorder, or Flip cam) and making their own adorably slipshod film with their friends will feel an instant kinship with this movie. It captures the joyful, earnest spirit of amateur filmmaking better than anything I’ve seen in ages. Oodles of hardware have already been thrown in the past few months at movies that celebrate a bygone era of cinema. You would hope we could also toss a bit more love to a film that fetes a more recently moribund method of movie magic.

Read more:
Nominated for Nothing: ‘Fast Five’
Nominated for Nothing: ‘Melancholia’
Oscars 2012: And the nominees are…

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