In the age of wonder when Stephen Spielberg was weaving his magic, there were a whole series of sci fi thrillers which became classics almost instantly— including of course E.T. and Closer Encounters of the Third Kind. These movies were almost instant classics because there was a sense of wonder to them, the aliens were approachable— shoot they were even lonely and wanted to phone home, and the kids who liked the aliens stole the show of course. These were not creature features meant to scare the wits out of our children, but rather gentler explorations of the possibility of contact with aliens. J.J. Abrams new movie, Super 8 is something of an hommage to Spielberg’s earlier work, and the latter is in fact the executive producer of the film, but this film, though it has some good elements and good moments, is not E.T.— by a long shot, though it will certainly remind one of that movie.
Let’s start with the basics. The film is set in small town Ohio (Lillian Ohio) in 1979. The film gets its title from the kind of film being used by some teenagers to film their own version of a zombie movie, hoping to win an Ohio film festival award. The film they are making (which we get to see at the end of the actual movie as they role the credits— so stay for the credits) is strictly amateur hour and makes for a smile. But what happens in the movie itself is that these teens, while filming their zombie flick accidentally film not merely a train wreck, but a deliberate train wreck that involves the alien in question. The film moves along at a rather slow pace (it’s an hour and 52 minutes long, but seems longer) until all Hades breaks loose in the last 30 or so minutes of the film.
What is good about this film? Well it involves some likable children, characteristic of many of the early Spielberg films and especially E.T. The wonder, naivete, and nerdiness, as well as awkwardness of the teenage years is presented in a way that produces some knowing smiles of remembrance. One child is a pyro who loves setting off cherry bombs and the like. One child is the overweight film director, self-conscious and striving to transcend his own form. One child is the sensitive child who has lost his mother recently in a tragic car accident. One child is the blond daughter of a blue collar single parent dad, who is perpetually down on his luck, and one child is tall and plays the leading man. Together they provide us with an ensemble cast that is much more likable than their pre-occupied or overly stern parents. The story is told from the point of view of the kids, which enhances the sense of wonder and shock and awe in the movie.
As so often happens in alien movies, we have the macho military types who are the bad guys trying to control the alien, or prevent him from leaving earth, and they in turn are the cause of most of the mayhem in the movie. Your tax dollars at work. Local law enforcement ends up at odds with the Air Force.
This sense of threat, and profound misunderstanding of the alien are of course classic examples of Spielbergian themes at work. Unfortunately Abrams quite unnecessarily over does the military overkill theme. We could have used more character development scenes between the teens or between them and their parents. This movie ends up being somewhere between an E.T. like film and a creature feature. This alien is not cute, like E.T. nor can he talk. He seems to be a cross between a spider and the alien in ALIEN that Sigourney Weaver had to tangle with.
The small town feel of the movie is played to good effect, but there are too many unexplained elements in the story. Why in the world is the alien a subterranean creature? How in the world does the army know where the kids are hiding out towards the end of the film? Why exactly does the good guy deputy sheriff have to be so estranged from his good son? We are never told.
Still, there are some special and humorous moments in this film. It is neither just fluff, nor another summer popcorn special for airheads. But it could have been so much more. It’s not super great, but it’s not bad either. It’s E.T. lite— less filling, tastes not quite as great.