While the secrets of director J.J. Abrams‘ scary-looking SUPER 8 remain locked tight, the new theatrical trailer which debuted with IRON MAN 2 last weekend sets an early tone for the mysterious film collaboration with producer Steven Spielberg. In fact, our first look resonates with the early cinematic influences of both filmmakers.
It’s important to note this footage is not from production (which hasn’t begun) but was created independently to tease the film a year prior to its debut, like Abrams did with his buzz-building STAR TREK teaser in 2008. As before, Abrams is selling the zeitgeist of his tale with a mini-movie serving only that purpose. Even so, this trailer is a tempting look into the conceptual heart of SUPER 8 and how closely he’s collaborating with Spielberg on it.
FilmEdge compares two classic film callbacks directly referenced in this custom-made teaser: the first and most obvious being Spielberg’s CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, his 1977 UFO epic which itself embedded hints of that director’s earliest film influence, Cecil B. DeMille’s THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH. Indeed, Spielberg counts DeMille’s circus extravaganza as the first film he saw in theaters and maintains it had a huge influence on his life and career. Clearly this bounce from Abrams through Spielberg and back to DeMille shaped this eerie forecast of SUPER 8 with its catastrophic train wreck, the opening gambit from Abrams while it was DeMille’s rail-wrecking climax back in 1952.
The trailer for SUPER 8 opens on a tranquil night shot of rolling countryside, a distant train’s tiny headlight shining under a sky crowded with stars:
Compare this to very similar shots and visual styles from CLOSE ENCOUNTERS, including Greg Jein’s excellent miniature landscape work to establish these night scenes:
The trailer continues as a freight train suddenly races across the screen just feet away, obscuring the night view in a rush of strobing flat cars and metallic fury. The urgent clanging of bells at a train crossing ring out while the signal lights alternately flash red. In the distance, a vehicle’s headlights speed toward the intersection. The hurtling truck breaks through the guard arm, turning in a skid to head down the track instead of crossing it. The dramatic and visual parallels between SUPER 8 and CLOSE ENCOUNTERS continue with striking similarity as the railroad crossing symbolizes a dramatic intersection of fate.
Back to the trailer: the truck races into the railroad crossing and drives up the tracks, tires thumping over the wooden ties as it hurtles toward the oncoming engine. Now if you haven’t seen THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH, the climactic third act highlights DeMille’s epic carnival drama with a terrific crash of the two circus trains at night. When the man who stages the train stoppage realizes his actions have endangered his unrequited love, he drives his car onto the tracks attempting to stop her train from hitting the halted engine ahead. His sacrifice is meaningless in saving lives and averting the collision as the entire contents of the circus — performers, animals and equipment — crash into a tangled heap of metal and mortality. Likewise, the truck driver speeds headlong into the oncoming engine in SUPER 8 with intentionally destructive results:
In both films. the massive train engine obliterates the vehicle: DeMille’s train slams into the stopped cars ahead while Abrams’ engine derails, slowing its speed drastically and causes a buckling pile-up of the freight cars behind it:
DeMille’s film and this train wreck scene captivated a young Steven Spielberg, who described it as “one of my first and most vivid childhood memories.” When accepting the Hollywood Foreign Press Association’s 2009 Cecil B. DeMille Award, Spielberg acknowledged the scene’s influence on his career: “My fate was probably sealed that day in 1952.” Of course, fans of the prolific director can easily see the direct homage that he built into CLOSE ENCOUNTERS twenty-five years later as Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) attempts to teach his son (Sean Bishop) math fractions by staging a model train collision.
Neary’s Amtrak metaphor fails to inspire the boy’s mathematical understanding since he’s too eager to watch the toy trains crash — just as one of Spielberg’s childhood film shorts was a miniature re-enactment of DeMille’s circus train catastrophe. The film allowed Spielberg to relive the exciting crash repeatedly without destroying his train set, and a burgeoning filmmaker was born.
Not only is Paramount keeping details of SUPER 8 top secret until its release next summer, the studio is counting on its just-launched viral campaign to build audience intrigue to a fever pitch over the next twelve months. Rumors stir that Abrams’ sci-fi thriller may focus on a group of young amateur filmmakers who capture something supernatural (or maybe extraterrestrial) in their movie.
What will break out from the Air Force freight car and into theaters in 2011? Abrams and Spielberg aren’t telling, but given the cross-pollenation between these two creative minds, expect a close encounter of the dark kind when SUPER 8 unspools next year. FilmEdge will be covering production and the ongoing viral marketing campaign, but meanwhile keep watching the skies.