“Listen, guys, we got J.J. Abrams writing and directing a film about alien contact that’s an homage to Spielberg and Steven’s on board to produce. Who else is in?”
When the words were first uttered out here in Hollywood, there must have been a hush in the room.
Remember that both Abrams and Spielberg spent childhoods making films and it’s no surprise that what they cooked up together is a story of kids making a film in small town America who stumble into something amazing. Our Challenger Super 8 is set in 1979, just a few years before the release of our Defending Champion E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial. The kids in both these films also get involved with aliens, cover-ups, military diversions and suppressions all while still remaining kids who are there to handle what the adults can’t.
Does this new film change the game again or does it simply pay tribute to the game?
Two directors — J.J. Abrams and his sometime mentor Steven Spielberg — slug it out at the Smack. The brash new contender takes on the wise, beloved champion, throwing punches at a man who taught him how to box.
Maybe Abrams and Spielberg got a laugh out of twisting the basic ingredients of E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial into something much darker and terrifying. Maybe in interviews they’ll deny they ever made that connection. Regardless, you will, from the first seconds.
With director J.J. Abrams at the helm, this film clearly wants to be a companion piece to E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial. Set in the gritty crumbling infra-structure of late-Carter era small-town America instead of a cookie-cutter suburban neighborhood, Super 8 explores a mysterious train wreck that throws the local population into chaos. As the military rolls into town, power blackouts continue and dogs and microwave ovens go missing. Then the townspeople start to realize that the truth of what escaped from the train may be more terrifying than anyone could imagine.
The main character is a kid named Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) who, along with his friends, is making a cheapo Super-8 movie that accidentally captures on camera the escape of something from the train wreck. Figuring out what exactly happened is what this sometimes scary film is all about.
The Defending Champion
Hard to believe, but next year will be the 30th anniversary of the release of E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial. At the time, Spielberg was in full “soft contact” mode. His Close Encounters of the Third Kind five years earlier had presented the aliens as benevolent space brothers. His 1982 foray into UFO mythology cast them as benevolent (and lovable) scientists.
Both of his first films claimed creative high ground by wedding a sense of wonder and magic to science fiction in a way that was just as mind-blowing as the optimism of 2001: A Space Odyssey — but far more accessible. Instead of making aliens something to be feared or fought, he looked at alien life through the unjaded eyes of youth. With E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, an earlier young boy named Elliott (Henry Thomas) connects with a funny-looking alien about the height of a coffee table and — with the help of his friends including an older brother and a young sister (Drew Barrymore) — helps the alien begin its journey home.
While the tone is wondrous and imaginative, the defining characteristic of this is character itself; from Mom completely not seeing E.T. when he’s locked in the closet with a bunch of her kids’ toys to the strange visitor’s obsession with Reese’s Pieces.
In 1982, I was the film reviewer for KCET, the PBS affiliate here in Los Angeles. This qualified me for an early screening pass to see E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, and I remember going into the Beverly Hills theater with everyone else knowing that the evening’s business was a watershed in film history. After Close Encounters of the Third Kind, how could Spielberg’s latest on aliens also not be an Event?
I don’t recall anyone walking out of that movie feeling any less than elated. The film had not disappointed. The kids were great, the alien lovable and the direction passionate. Literally, we laughed, we cried.
With those two films, Spielberg did his version of kids who are smarter than their parents riding bicycles and keeping secrets, electrical repairmen fixing power lines scared out of their wits, single parent households, homesick visitors, aliens in suburbs, military heavy-handedness and extreme cover-up.
Guess what? You can punch that same checklist on Super 8. And you can add a good, strong dose of the TV phenom Lost, that Abrams created.
You can add to that punch list. Revealing the “creature” slowly, building awesome technology from found objects, empathic connections between humans and non-humans.
This is not a bad thing. Super 8 punches them out nicely, in many cases on a par with Spielberg’s earlier work, and in a few others even better than the Master.
As this new film efficiently clipped through the markers, I found myself wondering about those development meetings. How calculated was this? Given that Spielberg himself must have signed off on what made it in the film, what was his reaction to the similarities?
Does it even matter?
Super 8 opened Friday in about a billion and a half theaters. You will probably enjoy it. Most everyone coming out of the theater where I saw it (this time a local multiplex and not an entertainment screening) seemed positive about it. As I am…
J.J. Abrams and the Steven Spielberg of the 2010s have riffed on the work of the Steven Spielberg of the 1970s and 1980s. It’s a very pleasing riff. Super 8 succeeds very well at being the dark Yin to E.T.‘s Yang.
Super 8 is such a meticulous and plotted homage, however, that it can’t be considered a true original. Instead, it’s a nicely done, high-tech, crisp, fully-pixeled copy of E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial and several other Spielberg influences.
When I saw Spielberg’s new creation that night in 1982, all of us in the audience knew it was an historical film that re-defined its genre. This week I saw a cool, derivative, fun movie. That was fine for an afternoon but not for the history books.
Our past and current champ, the winner by heavy points… E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial.