Show! Don’t Tell

— On Why The First Few Minutes of J. J. Abrams’ “Super 8” Is By Far The Best Part of The Movie.

When J. J. Abrams and Steven Spielberg announced that they were making a movie together, Abrams as writer/director and Spielberg as the producer, everyone thought it was a match made in heaven. What could possibly go wrong with so talented people working together?

And it did work. From a commercial standpoint at least. For a blockbuster it had the tiny budget of $50 million, it ended grossing more than $260m worldwide in the summer of 2011.

Critics and audiences alike applauded the movie for it’s nostalgic return to the movies of the 80s. I personally liked it a lot when it came out, so the other day I sat down to watch it again. I particularly wanted to see a very specific sequence again; the very beginning of the movie.

First impressions last

There is so much good entertainment out there, that the audience is saying “engage me upfront, or I walk”. The first few minutes of a movie is always extremely important. It’s here the overall tone and setting of the movie are laid out in front of the audience.

If the storyteller fails to make “good impressions” — so to speak — on us from the first start of the movie. Or if the introduction seems incoherent or confusing, we’ll simply walk away. Even if we just bought the ticket to the cinema.

Super 8 nails the first few minutes of the story. It excels in its stringent storytelling. Beyond excels.

The movie opens with a large sign in a factory where a worker is replacing same numbers that indicate how many days it’s been since there has been an accident. He replaces 784 with the number 1. We then cut to a memorial service.

That’s it. That’s the intro.

It’s just over 1 minute of screen time from the fade in on the sign in the steel mill to the scene at the memorial service at Joe’s home. That, my friends, is not just strong visual storytelling. It is superb. A lesser storyteller would have divulged many more details and put in explicit exposition trying to convey the same message. But by doing it as subtle as this, is become all the more powerful. Abrams knows that the audience is not stupid and he also knows that he cannot compete with the narrative you, as the audience, construct in your mind. This is much more strong for you personally and therefore hits you right in the gut.

And lastly, see how it all came together in the movie. Perfect cinematography, lighting, editing.

And it’s interesting to see how the final movie so closely follows the screenplay. Clearly, Abrams had given it a lot of thought on how he wanted this to play out.

The first 1.5 page of the screenplay for “Super 8” (2011)

Note the first line for Charles’ mother: “I’m so worried for that boy”. Maybe I’m reading too much into, but it seems like what she’s really saying is; “how will this impact us?”. Charles’ father picks it up when he answers “Jack’s gonna step up”.

If you want to read the entire screenplay you can find it here.

Problems with the story

“J.J. Abrams had the idea to start a film by showing a factory’s “Accident-Free” sign long before he came up with the rest of the idea of the film. Super 8 was actually the combination of two ideas; one for a film about kids making their own movie during the 1970s, and another for a blockbuster alien invasion film. Worried that the former idea would not attract enough attendance, Abrams combined the ideas.” (Source: Wikipedia)

The idea for the starting Super 8 was there from the very start. Actually, it was there before Abrams even had the rest of the story nailed down.

The rest of the story in Super 8, unfortunately, falls somewhat apart when you rewatch it. It clearly shows from the final movie that it is two movies combined. They have very little to do with each other and feel cramped together.

We’ll never know what the Super 8 movie that Abrams had envisioned about kids making a movie would have looked like. Which in its way is sad because I think we can all agree that this was the best part of Super 8. And because the introduction is so well made that we might remember Super 8 more fondly than it might deserve.

Monster movies come two a dozen, and let’s be honest, the monster part of Super 8 is really not that interesting. We’ve seen it a million times before and this one brings very little new to the table.

Devin Faraci from “Birth. Movies. Death.” has an excellent write-up of the many problems with the story, that I would recommend you read instead of me echoing all of his points.

But it’s interesting to see these two facets of J. J. Abrams. The super commercial one and the artistic one. We saw from Star Wars: The Force Awakens, that given a humongous task of creating a fan-pleasing, commercially successful and critics pleasing movie is not too big of a task for him.

Connecting the dots

So there you have it. One of the best examples of the “Show! Don’t tell!” technique.

The audience don’t know exactly what have happened, but it’s easy to connect the dots; factory accident → memorial service. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out what funeral it is we are attending.

And big kudos to J. J. Abrams for not talking down to his audience. It was an idea he had for a long time. He wanted an interesting way to start a story. And it was executed flawlessly.

In the 90s, Simon Lund Larsen was a production runner on a couple of movies, a sound engineer on others and a producer of some. Now he works Product Manager at a large toy maker in Denmark in the daytime and writes short stories, screenplays and posts like these in his spare time. You can find him here on Medium as Simon Lund Larsen or on Twitter with the same handle @SimonLundLarsen.

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