If the cute, cuddly alien of Steven Spielberg's "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial" had been imprisoned for decades by those cruel government guys chasing him, the result might have been something like J.J. Abrams' "Super 8."
Set around the same time as "E.T.", Abrams' alien tale had a key assist from Spielberg, a producer on the film about a group of kids whose homemade movie turns into a real sci-fi adventure when their camera captures a train wreck that unleashes an alien entity.
Raving mad over his treatment by nasty military types, Abrams' visitor from the skies is no good buddy to youngsters, like Spielberg's E.T.
Yet "Super 8" could be vintage Spielberg, whose films were heavy inspirations in boyhood for writer-director Abrams.
"'Super 8' began as really a chance to go back and revisit a time in my life making movies on Super 8 film, a time which in itself obviously was profoundly influenced by the movies at the time, and a lot of those movies were Steven's," said Abrams, 44, who is releasing the Paramount Pictures film under Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment and his own Bad Robot banners.
"It was never like an intention to go back and revisit, redo and remake movies that were done then but rather to do a movie that fit into the Amblin library of movies."
So "Super 8" shares many qualities with such Amblin films as "The Goonies," ''Gremlins," ''Back to the Future" or earlier Spielberg productions such as "Poltergeist" and "Close Encounters of the Third Kind."
A wide-eyed, innocent sense of wonder. A nocturnal, things-going-awry-in-the-night sensibility. Troubled families brought together through extraordinary, often other-worldly circumstances.
And like many Spielberg tales, youths at the heart of the story, making sense out of things that confound adults.
"The kids are in the middle of this huge train crash. They're like the only people that witness it, really, and it's from their point of view," said 13-year-old Elle Fanning, who co-stars as one of the teens acting in a Super 8 monster movie the children are making.
"Instead of having adults and how it affects them, it's more about the kids. It's not like condescending. It's not like that at all. It's really sort of the kids have the power. I feel like the adults, they sort of have lost that childlike feeling and they just want to destroy."
Fanning's Alice is the object of first love for the main character of "Super 8," Joe Lamb (newcomer Joel Courtney), whose mother recently died in a factory accident and who has a strained, distant relationship with his grieving father (Kyle Chandler), a sheriff's deputy.
Joe's the makeup, sound and special-effects guy on the Super 8 zombie movie his friend Charles (Riley Griffiths) is making. Their cast and crew of half a dozen kids are hurled into the center of terrifying events after they film the train crash. The aftermath brings human and animal disappearances, power outages and a siege of their small Ohio town by Air Force personnel.
Courtney, a fan of "Close Encounters," ''The Goonies" and Spielberg's "Indiana Jones" flicks, said Abrams did not refer too much to "E.T." while they were shooting "Super 8."
"But in my mind, that's what I was referencing. It has the same kind of tone and feeling, even though 'Super 8' is really different from 'E.T.'," said 15-year-old Courtney, who recalled one shot in particular where Abrams' film pays respect to a memorable moment from Spielberg's.
"The one with Riley and I riding our bikes, that's almost copy and paste," he said.
Abrams set "Super 8" in the summer of 1979, three years before "E.T." came out. Back then, Abrams was like Charles, a "chubby kid who didn't play sports" but shot Super 8 monster, horror and action films to stretch his imagination and learn the art of moviemaking.
Super 8 films were what brought Abrams and Spielberg together in the first place. In his mid-teens, Abrams and pal Matt Reeves (who directed the Abrams-produced monster movie "Cloverfield") were featured in a news article about a Los Angeles Super 8 festival.
Spielberg's office contacted Abrams and Reeves with a job offer they could not pass up: restoring the blockbuster filmmaker's own 8-mm movies he made as a youth.
"Just getting to watch these movies was amazing," Abrams said. "To see the work he was doing when he was a teenager. It was far better than the work we were doing, but it was massively inspiring to see that, oh, he started off doing movies like we were making. It was kind of cool."
On a much grander scale, "Super 8" is akin to the sort of movies Abrams made as a youth.
It also has autobiographical moments borrowed from his own boyhood. Just as Charles, who has a crush on Alice, works up the courage to ask her to be in his movie, so Abrams recalled doing the same with a girl in elementary school.
"She said yes, and I was like, wow!" said Abrams, whose "Super 8" includes sweet, tender scenes of shy Joe nervously applying makeup to Alice, the girl he adores.
"The whole idea of this movie was that time was really innocent, and girls are just starting to become an issue," Abrams said. "One of the reasons I love the moment when he's putting makeup on her face is that the idea of doing these movies sort of broke barriers. Like, all of a sudden, you're actually touching the face of the girl that you like, who would never talk to you. That was sort of what movies were able to do."
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