Steven Spielberg Wasn't The Only Influence On J.J. Abrams' Super 8

Five years before "Stranger Things" opened the first of many portals to the Upside Down, J.J. Abrams directed his own love letter to 1980s pop culture in the form of 2011's "Super 8." Ironically, the film picks up not in the '80s but 1979, as a teen boy named Joe (Joel Courtney of "The Kissing Booth" fame) and his father (Kyle Chandler) mourn the death of Joe's mother in a workplace accident. Some months later, Joe and his friends set to work making a no-budget zombie movie for a Super 8 film contest. It's going great, too, at least until one night when a passing train is deliberately derailed in order to free the alien creature held captive inside.

As with "Stranger Things," "Super 8" lovingly invokes the type of kids-on-an-adventure films produced by Steven Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment in the '80s (like "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial" and "The Goonies"). More than a mere homage, "Super 8" is actually an Amblin project itself, with Spielberg himself serving as a producer on the movie with Abrams and Bad Robot co-founder Bryan Burk. Spielberg's influence would go on to manifest itself in the film, not least of all in the strained relationship between Joe and his father. After all, absentee and estranged fathers are kinda Spielberg's thing, as I suspect many of you reading this are well-aware.

Yet, when it comes to the movie's scarier aspects, "Super 8" owes a debt to another director who rose to fame after making a smash-hit horror film in the '70s.

The Carpenter of it all

That would be a reference to cult film legend and synth-music maestro John Carpenter. You can readily single out the "Halloween" director's influence on "Super 8," from the town-being-invaded-by-mysterious-forces angle of "The Fog" to the presence of a "monstrous" other-worldly life-form (à la "The Thing"), and even the U.S.-military-hunting-a-misunderstood-alien sub-plot right out of "Starman." Speaking to SF Gate in 2011, Abrams talked about the blending of these inspirations as the source for much of the narrative tension in his movie.

Aliens aside, Joe's friendship and possible-romance-in-the-making with Alice (Elle Fanning) — whose alcoholic father was indirectly responsible for Joe's mother dying — serves as another source of tension in "Super 8." Indeed, for the majority of its first act, what Abrams called Joe and Alice's "love story" drives much of the action, much like how a death in the main character's family fuels the kids-on-a-journey plot of "Stand by Me" (another 1980s classic that clearly helped inspire the film). That is, until a big ol' metaphor in the form of a renegade "monster" enters the picture. As Abrams put it:

"The first act was clear in its setup: As Syd Field would say, the inciting incident, the train crash and the thing escaping. But the second act of the movie is very much about, to continue with this metaphor, these two trains on the same track – one being the innocence of these kids and the other being this creature and the mysteries of what's happening in town. That intercutting of those two stories was the engine of the second act."

'I don't think I ever completely reconciled the two genres'

By the end, what Abrams called the Spielbergian "autobiographical stuff" and the "John Carpenter-type of conditional terror" collide to inform the larger story in "Super 8." That's not to suggest it's a perfect meeting of the minds, of course. The Spielberg elements comes off feeling much more fully-realized than the Carpenter-style horror, quite likely because the monster sub-plot wasn't part of Abrams' original idea for the film. In fact, I might go so far as to argue "Super 8" would've worked better had it remained strictly in the coming-of-age lane rather than mashing it together with the sci-fi/horror genre.

Funny enough, Abrams basically agreed with me when he spoke to Collider in 2021. At the same time, however, he (not unfairly) reasoned the genre mash-up was necessary for "Super 8" to feel like a proper Amblin feature:

"I feel like, while I don't think I ever completely reconciled the two genres, in a way, I think doing something that was simply about the kids could have been maybe even a more satisfying story. There was something given that as we were discussing what this movie could be, the feeling of it being an Amblin movie, that it would feel like something from that library. In fact, this is the first Amblin movie to have the title card at the beginning of the movie, as opposed to the end. I think that was part of the genre mashup thing, was that Amblin movies traditionally did that. It felt like something that would have allowed it to live on a shelf more comfortably with those other films."

With the final season of "Stranger Things" a ways off, perhaps consider revisiting "Super 8"? It's currently available to stream on HBO Max.