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Spotting the Spielberg references in Super 8

We perform an alien autopsy on J.J. Abrams’s cynical copy job.

Photo Credit: Francois Duhamel
TOYISH WONDER Fanning and Courtney marvel at an alien gadget.

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Steven Spielberg must be blushing. For decades, budding blockbuster filmmakers have aped his style like little kids pulling at their big brother’s sleeve. Yet none have emulated the director’s work with as much fetishistic precision as J.J. Abrams. In this summer’s Super 8, the Lost mastermind took Spielberg imitation to a whole new level.

Set in small-town America circa the late ’70s, the film skillfully combines elements from the master’s greatest hits: a shaggy preteen hero coping with parental absence; a stirring, John Williams–y score (courtesy of Michael Giacchino); and plenty of close encounters. What’s missing, even with Mr. E.T. himself in the producer’s chair, is the sense that all this nostalgia means much to anyone involved.

Super 8 may be a deeply cynical act of tribute art, but for any dyed-in-the-wool Spielberg fanatic, there’s pleasure to be had in spotting its various references and callbacks. In keeping with the spirit of Abrams’s uncanny copy job, let’s take a close, minute-by-minute (and spoiler-intensive) look at the film’s most blatantly Spielbergian moments.

1:25 Our hero, Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney), makes his first appearance. He’s a slightly older, sadder variation on E.T.’s Elliott, who also suffered from the loss of a parent. As in Spielberg’s film, Joe is introduced outside the circle of kids; he’s the lonely survivor of a broken home.

17:17Super 8’s inciting incident is an F/X-heavy re-creation of the model-train derailment Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) uses to demonstrate a math principle to his son in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. And the truck that barrels into the oncoming train is a dead ringer for the one Neary drives when he makes his first UFO sighting—at a railroad crossing, no less.

20:32 Elle Fanning’s survey of the wreckage from the train derailment recalls a shot from War of the Worlds, during which Fanning’s older sister, Dakota, gawks at the fiery remains of a downed airplane.

26:29 Mirroring the establishing shots of both E.T. and Close Encounters, Abrams offers a sprawling, nighttime overview of his small-town setting.

28:40 Joe and Charles (Riley Griffiths) ride bikes through town, evoking the big chase at the end of E.T.

34:39 Joe’s father, Deputy Lamb (Kyle Chandler), is a proxy for Roy Scheider’s alarmed sheriff in Jaws. In this scene, he tries to convince his skeptical boss that trouble is brewing.

37:03 A gas-station clerk listens to his Walkman while the town sheriff is attacked by…something in the parking lot. It’s reminiscent of the scene in The Lost World: Jurassic Park in which Peter Stormare meets a grisly demise not far from his oblivious, headphone-wearing buddy.

45:39 In another Jaws shout-out, Deputy Lamb holds a town meeting to address public concerns. If only he had a Quint to hunt down the rampaging monster in his community.

1:19:50 The alien assault on a bus dimly echoes the T. rex–on-vehicle attack scenes in both Jurassic Park and The Lost World.

1:26:05 Is this suburban-war-zone set piece, with Charles kneeling to help a wounded friend amid gunfire and explosions, a PG-13 allusion to Saving Private Ryan?

1:38:20 The community-farewell climax of Super 8 may remind you of Close Encounters’ utopian finale, but the UFO that eventually takes flight looks more like the one in E.T. Sadly, the magic of both movies is conspicuously absent here.

Super 8 arrives on VOD, DVD and Blu-ray on Tuesday 22.

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