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New Sci-Fi Movie Echos Early Spielberg

  • Penelope Poulou

Middle schoolers filming a movie witness a train derailment that sets the plot of 'Super 8' into high gear, June 2011

Middle schoolers filming a movie witness a train derailment that sets the plot of 'Super 8' into high gear, June 2011

In his latest sci-fi action film, director J.J. Abrams pays tribute to classic films, such as Steven Spielberg's E.T., Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Riddley Scott's Alien. Focusing on a group of middle schoolers as they set out to make a horror film, only to encounter a real horror, Abrams creates a story as intimate as 1970s suburbia and as big as any movie about aliens.

Abrams is no stranger to the genre. He directed the latest Star Trek film in 2009. He also had support from Spielberg, one of his mentors and the producer of Super 8.

In the movie, a group of middle school kids are shooting a film at their town's train depot when a train derails. The cause of this derailment in a midwestern town in the 1970s is at the core of Super 8.

The derailment was no accident and the military knows there were witnesses. They're on the kids' trail.

The town's deputy sherriff, Kyle Chandler, is trying to understand the situation as the town sinks into chaos.

But there is evidence. During the derailment, the kids’ camera kept recording. The military is after the tape.

Chandler, also the father of one of the kids, tries to uncover the truth and protect his son.

Director J.J. Abrams, who also made movies as a teen, pays tribute to the '70s and the science fiction genre, from a kid’s perspective. There’s also romance.

“There’s two elements in the film," said Abrams. "One is this sort of mysterious creature that escaped from the train. The other is a sort of equally mysterious creature at least for these boys. It’s this girl named Alice. She goes to their school and the main character is clearly smitten with this girl and working in the movie in which she’s going to be part of gives him an excuse to hang out and get to know each other.”

Abrams worked closely with Steven Spielberg, who produced the movie.

“I was telling him about all the adventures I had as a kid making little movies with my neighborhood friends, and he had the same experience," said Spielberg. "And so we thought wouldn’t it be cool to make a movie in the '70s about young people making movies.”
The film borrows heavily from Spielberg classics, such as E.T and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Abrams also uses themes from later sci-fi classics, such as M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs, and The Village, where monsters lurk in the woods.

Super 8 is chock full of special effects. The explosions are grand and the story is engaging. The cast of kids is stellar. Joel Courtney, who plays Joe Lamb, is a newcomer to films and a natural. Elle Fanning plays Joe’s love interest Alice Dainard. She enriches the story with her sophistication and sensitivity.

The film is thrilling, but towards the end it turns campy, reminding horror-craving adults that this is ultimately a kids’ extravaganza.