Super 8 takes a lot of its root materials from Spielberg’s classic “Close Encounters,” and this film can’t hope to duplicate the obsession contact with alien species of Spielberg’s masterpiece, the details help evoke the similar feelings.
Close Encounters is one of the plot-less art films whose structure depends upon image and a sequence of events.
Super 8, however, is extremely plotted – a cause and effect adventure film upon which elements of Spielberg films are hung like ornaments, yet some of the original magic seems to have seeped into the film anyway.
Both films deal with what is real and what isn’t, and how these things can sometimes come together.
The table top rail road set early in Close Encounter and its use as a math lesson on fractions implying a train wreck is perfectly balanced against the fake train disaster the film later uses.
We have the main character building a fake Devil’s Tower, while other characters recreate the same reality in other mediums.
Super 8 – which is also about a faked reality – finds itself in the middle of a train wreck and eventually an alien situation. Joe builds model of everything, and these seem to take on a reality of their own.
At one point, Charles want to blow up one of Joe’s models of a train, and Alice asks Joe not to let it happen.
The model has become a symbol of something important and she objects to its being destroy to create something that’s not real.
As with other Spielberg films, back drops are important, and this film repeats some of the set design jokes Spielberg added to his films, such as images of Star Wars, as well as incredibly complex and crowded backgrounds, rooms so cluttered with stuff there is almost no room for the people in them.
While we get less of objects being controlled by aliens in Super 8 than we do in Close Encounter, we get some, especially in the scene at the gas station when the sheriff gets abducted.
The twins in Super 8, in one scene, seem as out of control at the kid smashing things in the early scenes of Close Encounter, bent on destroying things while their parents look on.
In Close Encounters, when the power starts going out through the Indiana town, the main character – an electrical worker – goes out to make the repair. We get a similar character and a similar truck in Super 8.
In both Close Encounters and Super 8, we get a scene in which the father is trying to impose his own wishes on his children: in one the father is manipulating his kids to go see the film Ponokio, while in an early scene in Super 8, Jackson attempts to talk his son, Joe into going to baseball camp for the summer.
TV is used in similar ways in both films, although more symbolically in Close Encounter, and more effectively. The TV set in Close Encounters tells us what the story is really about – giving us images of the film The Ten Commandments before the film’s hero starts off on a quest to the sacred mountain. We get symbolic images denoting time and cartoons donating space travelers, and, of course, we get the dramatic irony in which the government tries to fool the public by staging a train accident. In advertently, this becomes a vehicle that communicates to those who have had close encounters.
We get similar train crash visuals in Super 8 – although as Charles points out, “if it is on TV it must be real.” Both films allude to how little TV can really be trusted, especially in Close Encounter when the TV camera jumps from one sensational subject to another when at a press conference someone claims to have seen Big Foot.
The camera becomes a weapon at one point when intimidating the mother who claims her son was abducted by space ships
The camera – especially the one the kids use – symbolizes something else in Super 8 (more about this in another essay).
Animals play a huge role in Close Encounters – especially as they are used to enhance the government’s lie, bodies of animals are seen along the roadside leading up to Devil’s Tower.
Super 8 uses animals differently, first as a warning as the dogs in the neighborhood take flight away from the animals, and then – in at least one seen – as a kind of counter point to the human madness, horses standing calmly in the middle of pasture while humanity is a panic.
The train crash site provides a number of common elements, helicopters and other such “production value” items Charles is eager to get into his zombie film.
Abduction plays a central role in both films, but again for different reasons. It is not clear why the aliens abducted people in Close Encounters (there is a symbolic religious theory), but in Super 8, it seems the alien is harvesting food.
In both films, we get a public event with misinformation a main focus, a woman blaming the loss of her 20 microwaves on a Russian invasion, while we get big foot and a lying government officials in the others.
We get misinformation from the military in Super 8, too, when they refused to explain what it is they are doing traveling around the town searching for something.
We get similar evacuation scenes in both films and for largely the same reason – the government has set up a fake disaster in order to remove people from the area of interest.
In both movies, the military is moving a lot of materials around in trucks, although the Close Encounter disguises what they are doing better.
There are a number of other small references, such as characters in both films going off road to avoid road blocks, or deliberately disobeying orders – always disregarding the military. In both films, the main characters are captured, held captive for a short time, and then make a dramatic escape.
In both films, some characters are reunited with their loved ones at the end or learn a valuable lesson on life.
Super 8 will never rank as high as Close Encounters in terms of greatness, but by using elements from many Spielberg films, it manages to achieve some of the magic – as if some psychic connection was made simply by association of materials.