Close Encounters of the Third Kind
E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial
When watching J.J. Abrams’ Super 8, it’s impossible not to notice similarities to the monster film he produced three years earlier: Cloverfield. With a group of young main characters capturing amateur footage of a monster invasion, getting caught in the middle of a city-turned-battle zone, and attempting to save a female companion, the main difference seems to be the fact that this one is not told from the first-person point of view of the characters’ camera. Ironically, however, with the characters' camera actually in view in Super 8 (as opposed to it being the view in Cloverfield), there is more attention drawn to the recording apparatus. Super 8 is about our near-suicidal drive to observe and record the fantastic. However, with more of a focus on the characters behind the camera rather than the action in front of the device, Super 8 surpasses Cloverfield in emotion and, thus, relatability.
The plot unfolds within a classic story of companionship and maturation during an emotionally tumultuous time. A group of small-town middle school cinephiles, one of which recently lost his mother in a factory accident, are filming their own zombie movie. One night they sneak out to film a night scene near railroad tracks. Lucky for them, a train happens to come by during the filming. “Production value!” screams Charles, the young director. But then something unexpected happens: a truck crashes into the train, an action that sends train cars flying in all directions, along with a strange cargo of metal, cube-like objects. The town will soon learn there was another cargo on that train as well: a never-before seen creature of enormous size.
Our fascination with the extraordinary begins with the very filming of the zombie movie. The town these children live in is as stereotypical as it gets: everyone knows everyone else, kids can reach nearly any location by bicycle, and there is exactly one town drunk. The children's attempt at making a film about the supernatural is an attempt to add something dynamic to their lives. Even insofar as their amateur zombie production is concerned, they are willing to risk whatever punishment may arise in order to create their story, sneaking out of the house to film night scenes, hanging out with kids they aren’t supposed to be with, and taking off in a parent’s car without a license. They even stage scenes in front of the Air Force’s clean-up operation in order to add to the realism of their film, despite the fact that they believe, since they were secret witnesses to the accident, that the military poses an immediate threat to their livelihood should they be discovered. The enhanced effect of any realism they can add to the supernatural incidents of their film, to them, is worth nearly any risk.
The life-risking drive to observe phenomena is present in other areas throughout the film. At times, this idea is contained in scenes as simple as a curious telephone worker trying to get a better look at something that is obviously dangerous. This element is present in its strongest form in a scene that explains the origins of the creature attacking the town, a scene that plays out as a recording watched by the main characters. The scientists privy to the thing’s existence deemed it more important to study the creature than to accommodate a simple desire that would have rid them of the clearly deadly monster forever. They, along with the military, are presented as the antagonists of the film, and indeed they are morally bad characters, but their curiosity is hardly different from that of everyone else. They will risk anything in order to get a better look at, a better understanding of, something amazing.
Throughout the story Joe, the boy who lost his mother, undergoes a love-induced maturation in which he comes to understand the beauty and excitement in the ordinary (specifically, in a girl). One object symbolizes Joe’s evolving mindset. Joe’s locket of his deceased mother holding him as a baby is a camera-captured record of the greatest type of phenomenon: life itself. In a crucial scene near the end, Joe will make a decision regarding the locket that demonstrates his ascension beyond an infatuation with the fantastic. It’s not that he becomes unable to appreciate idiosyncrasies of the world; it’s that he no longer has to obsess over them.
Abrams’ approach to the creature falls in line with Joe’s emotional growth. Never is the monster clearly seen in full. Of course, for the first half or so of the film, that is a standard monster movie technique. You don’t give everything away right off the bat. However, even later in the film when most others would offer us a full view of the monster or even revel in the creature’s design, Abrams is content to reveal only its face and its body’s general shape. We get a clearer view of the creature in these moments, but we never have an exact understanding of what it looks like. It is as if the film itself understands the relative importance of the characters and events at hand over the mere look of the thing attacking their town.
We are all interested in anomalies – visual, biological, or otherwise. When none exist, we create them. When they do exist, we follow them as closely as we can. The emotional arc of Super 8 is one that evokes the contentment found when we are able to appreciate such things with a grounding in a superseding devotion to our humanity. There is nothing wrong with pursuing the unordinary; it’s just frighteningly easy to get lost when doing so.