Steven Spielberg’s long and successful career has seen him gain many admirers, acolytes and devotees, including some people who quite clearly fancy themselves as the “next Spielberg”. Perhaps chief amongst the latter is New York filmmaker Jeffrey Jacob Abrams, whose admiration for Spielberg is well-known, and often evident in his work. If you can see past the lens flares, anyway.
Spielberg needs no further introduction, but Abrams, of course, has distinguished himself by, along with Alex Kurtzman (Scott may have to bleep that name as it’s one of the worst profanities in my vocabulary), helping to forever ruin Star Trek as actually being about anything; talking the talk but failing to walk the walk with his “mystery box” concept; and making a Star Wars film notably, and improbably, worse than any of the prequels.
To be fair to him, he has had a considerably more successful career as a producer, particularly in the unexpected resurrection of the Mission: Impossible franchise, and we’re not here today simply to attack Abrams. (This last sentence may require a fact check.)
What we are here for, though, is to see if the pupil can match the teacher by looking at the directors’ two most-directly comparable films: Spielberg’s 1982 family adventure E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, and Abrams first (and thus far only) original work, 2011’s Super 8.
Steven Spielberg, over his long and varied career, has had many notable successes and, of course, a number of failures. But for a period from the mid-70s to the mid-80s he could almost do no wrong, and was responsible for a number of remarkably memorable, impactful and resonant films that created iconic characters and put a huge stamp on popular culture for the next three decades. The last of these early touchstones was E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, directed and produced by Spielberg and Kathleen Kennedy and written by Melissa Mathison.
One October evening some aliens are visiting California. Not to abduct humans, nor invert the relative positions of the innards and exteriors of cows, but to study plants. Harmless as they may be, though, some shadowy human figures are hunting them through the forest, and when they catch up with the aliens, the little critters flee for the safety of their spaceship and get the hell out of Dodge. Well, Los Angeles, but that’s not a saying. Unfortunately, one of their party is left behind.
This creature, later to be known as E.T., seeks refuge in the home of ten-year-old Elliott (Henry Thomas), where he lives with his brother, Michael (Robert MacNaughton), his sister Gertie (an impossibly cute Drew Barrymore) and his recently-separated mother, Mary (Dee Wallace). Finding the frightened alien, Elliott shelters him, eventually bringing his brother and sister into the secret.
In the beginning there are a lot of fish out of water antics as E.T. learns about Earth food and customs. Sadly, though, this is a place where the film fails, having its advanced, intergalactic alien visitor, as so many other films have done, be about as smart as your average concussed spaniel when the script demands it, for the lulz. But there is certainly a lot of entertainment derived from it, particularly when Elliott, seemingly having developed a psychic bond with the critter, begins demonstrating the results of E.T.’s experimentation with alcohol in the middle of school.
E.T. is scared, lonely and homesick, though, and soon simply sick, so Elliott and his siblings help him to create a communication device with which he can contact his colleagues. A phone of sorts, with which he can call home. It’s a slight possibility you’re familiar with that line. All the while, though, and unbeknownst to the children, the shadowy humans from the film’s opening are prowling the neighbourhood trying to locate the alien…
E.T. is perhaps most remarkable as an evocation of childhood, most notably through its child’s point of view, both figuratively and literally, with the majority of the film shot from child height, with Dee Wallace’s the only adult face seen until the final act. That the child cast, particularly Henry Thomas as Elliott, are so natural and give such good performances, is no small part of this success.
That so many of Spielberg’s most successful and enduring films were made in collaboration with John Williams is neither a surprise nor a coincidence, and E.T. is another iconic Williams score, with the hopeful, soaring melody of the “Flying Theme” being a standout. As with many Williams scores, though, there is an argument to be made that E.T.’s is too prescriptive, and certainly too prevalent, but for the most part it complements the story well.
I watched E.T. with the near-surety that I had never seen it, and if I had it certainly wasn’t since the 1980s, but with a pretty good idea of its content thanks to cultural osmosis. I also went in with a lot of expectation, not least because Scott had mentioned watching it not so long ago, and his praise was effusive. If there’s a disappointment, then, it’s that it was merely very good, and not something magical, which was what I was expecting. Whether that’s due to not having childhood memories of it, or, perhaps more likely, that it’s been robbed of some of its own power by being so impactful, and therefore granting its power to the subsequent films it inspired and influenced, I don’t know. However, it is still a technically-accomplished, polished and well-acted yarn with a hell of a lot of heart.
Joel Courtney’s Joe Lamb is a 14 year old trying to get past the accidental death of his mother in their small Ohio-ian, 1979-ian town, with his father, Kyle Chandler’s Deputy Jackson Lamb not being a great deal of help, emotionally speaking. Joe’s helping his best friend, Riley Griffiths’ Charles, film a, er, film for a local film festival, alongside his other friends including Elle Fanning’s Alice Dainard, whom Joe’s expressly forbidden from consorting with, his father blaming her father for aforementioned accident.
Such family drama mostly goes out the window when the kids, filming one night on a borrowed Super 8 camera, witness a catastrophic train crash caused by their biology teacher. Why would he do such a thing, and what’s the deal with these weird other-worldly metal cubes the train was carrying?
As you’ve perhaps figured out by context, the train was transporting a now on the loose alien life form, along with components of the ship it arrived in, and he’s trying to get home while the Air Force roll into town to recapture him, locking down the town under a veil of secrecy. Of course, it will take a bit of digging and discovery, and a whole lot of adventure, for the kids, and the Deputy, to figure all this out.
Now, to be clear, Super 8 is not without its flaws, and given that talking about them is sort of the point of this podcast, we’ll get into them, but for me at least, the one overarching thing I’d like to say about Super 8 is that it is a great deal of fun, a very good blockbuster-type film with a bunch of great character touches, particularly in the support, and perhaps it’s table stakes these days, but some really nice CG action setpieces.
However if you want to nit-pick it, you absolutely can, as you can with most of the softer science fiction out there. Hell, E.T. has levitation and mystical healing in it, so in that context powers of electro-magnetism aren’t all that far out there. A more interesting nit-pick is the tone of the alien encounters, which has to rather awkwardly turn on a dime from being one step away from the Xenomorphs of Aliens, an evil, It-esque spider that appears to be eating people, to a highly advanced empathetic alien by the end of it. I mean, it’s sort of explained away in the text of it, but that logic never really gets matched to the emotion of it.
What Abrams handles better, and is probably the genesis of the “new Spielberg” nonsense, was the emotions and relationships between the youngsters, which has deliberate echoes, some might say outright lifting, from not just E.T. but the likes of The Goonies, which has worked very well with a mostly, Fanning aside, untested cast. Again, not perfect – the kid obsessed with blowing stuff up’s character arc is that he likes to blow things up, which is a rather less parabolic arc that you might hope for but entirely adequate for a minor supporting character, and both he and the rest of the crew make for a fun Scooby gang.
Of course, calling Abrams the new Spielberg was always a bit silly when the old Spielberg is still around making (mostly) great films, but hindsight is 20-20 and we didn’t know what Star Wars flavoured horrors awaited us. On a track record of this, the first Star Trek reboot, and a perhaps selective reading of his other earlier writing/production credits I can see where the thinking was, and I perhaps wouldn’t entirely disagree with it. At any rate, Super 8 is a very entertaining film, and very much not The Rise of Skywalker. So that’s nice. I award it Super 8 out of Super 10.
Thanks to everyone who has got in touch with us on this, or said kind words about the show – it’s all very much appreciated.
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