The family blockbuster returns

JJ Abrams's Super 8 is inspired by the rites-of-passage movies he loved as he grew up. Kaleem Aftab celebrates a golden age

Super 8 is JJ Abrams's paean to the 1980s' golden era of films about childhood friendship. Set in 1979, the movie is a two-hour tribute to Steven Spielberg and the films that followed in the footsteps of Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. that were about that impressionable period around puberty when children are preoccupied by romance, rebellion and the looming cloud that is adulthood.

The action starts when an accident at a steel factory kills the mother of 13-year-old Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney). His father, the deputy sheriff of the fictional town Lillian, Ohio, is quickly proved to be inadequate at the job of raising his son on his own when he's seen in a bar trying to farm Joe out to summer camp.

Four months after the prologue, shy Joe is part of a gang of four boys making a film with a Super 8 camera that they hope to enter into a local film-festival. Joe is charged with the make-up, chubby Charles (Riley Griffiths), modelled on Orson Welles, is the director, the special effects head is awkward pyrotechnics enthusiast Cary (Ryan Lee) and rounding off the troupe is the gangly unlikely leading man Martin (Gabriel Basso), playing a film-noir-style detective.

The female lead takes some convincing to come on board. She's a slightly older girl, Alice (Elle Fanning), pretty but insular, who is wily enough to know that the fact that she has access to a car is a bonus for young film-makers making a movie on a budget.

The big Spielberg set-piece takes place on the first night of the shoot. The crew of five head to a train station for a pivotal scene in which the female lead reaffirms her love for the detective. Their lives change when a train whizzes past the set and is purposely derailed by an onrushing pickup truck.

We know that it's Spielberg territory when the truck driver turns out to be actor Glynn Turman, who played the science teacher in Gremlins, executive produced by the E.T. director. The references to E.T. come thick and fast, from the flashlights in a field to the cramped house and finale involving an alien needing to go home. There are lines and sequences taken straight out of Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jurassic Park and the Spielberg-produced childhood adventure The Goonies.

But to get lost in a Spielberg geek-a-thon makes it too easy to miss out on the fact that Abrams is paying tribute to a whole era of teen movies, from the work of the late John Hughes to Francis Ford Coppola's adaptations of SE Hinton novels. The strength of Super 8 comes not in the special effects or the sci-fi plot but in the intricate bond of friendship that grows between the group as they face adversity and lose their innocence.

Jeffrey Jacob Abrams was 13 in 1979. There was a perfect storm of ingredients that made this period so pivotal. The calibre of directors who wanted to make films for this audience was unusually high. It was the generation of films that came after the success of Kramer vs Kramer, and divorce and broken homes became prevalent storylines, the supreme tool for getting rid of parents from pictures and an outlet for that essential teen movie ingredient angst. The kids were modern versions of Dickens characters.

Hollywood studios, recognising that younger audiences making repeat visits to the cinema was where the big bucks were to be made, were experimenting with different types of films catering to the teen market, and trying to work out where the bucks were to be made as video threatened to take their cash.

At the time, Spielberg had made the highest-grossing film of all time, Jaws, and he suddenly went from being on the periphery of the New Hollywood group to being the major player in Hollywood. The inventor of the modern blockbuster took advantage of the realisation that the family film meant big bucks by making Close Encounters and then breaking his own box-office record with E.T.

His films were the game changers in how Hollywood studios approached the summer blockbuster. The Harry Potter films and the Twilight saga, with their blend of childhood friendships against supernatural forces, owe their success not just to the popularity of the books but also the path that Spielberg set then.

In 1982 Francis Ford Coppola had his great folly, the musical One From the Heart, which forced him to sell his Zeotrope studio. He decided to make two teen adaptations of SE Hinton novels by means of comeback. The Outsiders is famous for launching the careers of a Who's Who of the biggest names in Hollywood cinema in the 1980s and 1990s. Tom Cruise, Matt Dillon, Emilio Estevez, Patrick Swayze, and Diane Lane were the illustrious supporting cast. Ralph Macchio of The Karate Kid and C Thomas Howell played the two leads, Jonny Cade and Ponyboy Curtis, the youngest members of the gang. Ostensibly it's about gang wars between the poor Greasers and their rivalry with the Soc, the wealthier kids from the other side of the tracks. Nonetheless, much of the picture is about the friendship of Jonny and Ponyboy, both from broken homes. In 1983 Coppola directed Rumble Fish, which uses gang rivalry as a background to a discourse on fraternal relationships and broken dreams. What sets these two films apart from other teen movies of the time is the emphasis on the aesthetic.

John Hughes became the most sought-after director for his movies that followed the formula of a poor kid from a broken home trying to better himself in a society where wealth and cool is everything. The pivotal films directed or produced by Hughes, Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, Weird Science, Pretty in Pink, Ferris Bueller's Day Off and Some Kind of Wonderful were made between 1984 and 1987.

There was an innocence to these films that went out of fashion as films such as Heathers twisted the genre to emphasise rivalry between teenagers rather than friendships that crossed class divisions. Then came the arrival of gross-out comedies such as American Pie, and teen movies celebrated acting out in the manner of National Lampoon's Animal House. The arrival of grunge music and Nirvana changed the paradigm in youth culture; where once there was a desperate need to belong, it became cool to be insular and individual.

'Super 8' is released on 11 August

Growing Pains: Best of a good bunch

Breakfast Club (1984)

Five very different high school students in Saturday detention (above) discover, through the course of the day, how similar they are.

Rumble Fish (1983)

Coppola's second adaptation of an SE Hinton novel has aged far better than the similar 'The Outsiders', and has a defining performance from Mickey Rourke as The Motorcycle Boy.

The Goonies (1985)

A group of misfit kids (right), who are about to lose their homes, find a treasure map that could lead to the end of family financial troubles.

Stand By Me (1986)

A writer recounts how a group of friends set out to discover a dead body, and lose their innocence.

E.T. (1982)

A boy from broken home finds an alien stranded after his spaceship leaves, and they share a bond and friendship built on the fact that they both feel like outsiders who are struggling to belong.

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