The other day my mom asked me, ”Is Super 8 like an updated version of E.T.?” Now, this is a woman who doesn’t follow movie news at all and can’t remember the name of the film she’s currently watching without looking at the DVD box, so this wasn’t an unexpected question. ”No, Mom,” I said, rolling my eyes. ”I mean, yes, it’s produced by Steven Spielberg and sure, there is an alien and yes, there are kids…but it’s a completely different film!”
After that conversation, I went to a second screening of the film. While I watched, all I could think about was how right my mother actually was. (I hate it when that happens.) Sure, the story is different. There are no adorable aliens hiding in the stuffed animals and drinking beer, believe me. But the feeling I got from watching the film was very, very similar to what I felt watching E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial in my footie pajamas at the drive-in. It’s the same thing I felt watching The Goonies. Warm fuzzies.
Super 8 came from a desire to relive J.J. Abrams‘ childhood, shooting films on Super 8, just like Steven Spielberg. Abrams said in an interview with Empire Online that the intention was never to pay direct homage to Spielberg’s films, but that his childhood was very influenced by Spielberg’s work. Now, since I know info on the film has been locked up tighter than Fort Knox, here’s the deal. A group of kids are shooting a zombie film on Super 8 in the summer of 1979. The Walkman has just been introduced. Back then, you could take off on your bike for the entire day and show up at dinner time, no questions asked. Kids climbed in and out of each other’s windows and snuck out of the house at night without sinister motives. Anyway, one night while shooting a scene at the train station, the kids witness a horrific crash. Their still-rolling camera catches evidence of something leaving the train…
So, back to the Spielbergian fuzzies. Why did this film do to me what, say, District 9, for instance, did not? Part of it is the time period. These were the days when the film they were shooting on took days to develop. These were days when, if something was weird and you wanted to find out more, you went to the library. (In case you’re wondering, it’s a large building full of books. Like your Kindle, but with chairs and walls and a lady in glasses shushing you.) Your social group was the five or six kids on your block, especially during the summer. No camera phones. No asking the Twitterverse if anyone else knew what these random little silver cubes you found were. Everything was slower and less complicated. I know I sound like someone’s grandmother here. And no, I don’t want to go back to a time when I didn’t have a little magic computing box that sometimes works as a phone. I’m just saying that part of the reason early Spielberg was so heartwarming was the simplicity of the story. If you want to set a narrative about kids discovering an alien now, the story has to be so much more complex. What are the mechanics of the alien? Let’s look up info about alien sightings on Wikipedia. Hey, I took video and posted it on YouTube. Of course, one of the kids must be a genius hacker who breaks into a government computer to get information…
You don’t really get that warm fuzzy thing from modern films outside of Pixar because there is simply too much to concentrate on. (Look at something like Inception. A brilliant film in so many, many ways, but missing one thing…heart. Hell, where do you fit it in?) There is something about the simplicity of the story and giving the actors time to actually feel things that breaks through our defenses and reminds us that we’re human. That’s part of it.
There is also the casting. Now, I don’t know how involved Spielberg was in the casting, but I’d be shocked if he wasn’t a large part of it. The kids in this film, mostly newcomers, had a charming sense of…well, childhood about them. There were no preternaturally adult-like kids here. (I’m looking at you, Dakota Fanning. Don’t know how your sister managed to avoid that.) There was no self-aggrandizing, self-aware acting. Abrams managed to direct these kids in a way that brought out their innocence. You don’t blink when Alice (Elle Fanning) climbs in the window of one of the boys. You don’t fear that the boy who likes to blow things up is going to end up blowing up a school in five years. This was a Spielbergian group of kids, right down to their speech patterns. A group getting together to save the town/their friends a la Goonies.
Finally, like E.T., this is an adventure story that revolves around a group of ordinary kids doing something extraordinary, often despite the adults in their world. The kids know best here. It’s their heart that gives them the right answer. Their innocence. Their lack of jadedness. The Spielbergian (god, I love that word) message that the heart…that kindness gives you the right answer. In The Goonies, kids have to sav the town and do the right thing. In E.T. it’s the kids who are kind to the alien. And without spoiling anything, it’s kids who save the day in Super 8. Damnit, I hate when Mom’s right. Don’t tell her I said that, okay?