Close encounters with the master

As J J Abrams's homage 'Super 8' hits the screens, Ryan Gilbey reveals his own eight-point guide to building a Spielberg-inspired blockbuster

There hasn't been a new Steven Spielberg film since the adventurer-archaeologist played by Harrison Ford was daringly sprung from his care home three years ago in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

Still, you could be forgiven for scarcely registering the absence. With so many high-profile homages around, the real Spielberg could retire safe in the knowledge that his good work is being continued by younger directors who lack only his blasé approach to the wearing of baseball caps in public.

J J Abrams, the creator of Lost, is the latest to turn his adolescent adoration for Spielberg into blockbuster material in its own right. His new film, Super 8, is a Spielberg movie in all but the fine print. It follows a group of high-school friends who accidentally shoot footage of a train crash while making their own zombie movie, only to find the accident holds clues to a Roswell-style alien encounter. Worshipping alongside Abrams this year at the altar of Spielberg are Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, who co-wrote and starred in the alien road movie Paul, as well as Joe Cornish (of Adam & Joe), whose Attack the Block transposed the kids-and-aliens mixture of vintage Spielberg to a south London housing estate.

Not that these are love letters from afar. Pegg and Frost were directed by Spielberg on his upcoming motion-capture animation The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn, which was in turn co-written by Edgar Wright (producer of Attack the Block) and Cornish. And Wright made his name working with Pegg, who played Scottie in Abrams's Star Trek reboot (and will do so again in the sequel). How cosy.

If you yearn to make your own Spielberg film but you're not one of these aforementioned writers, actors or directors, don't despair. Simply follow this super 8-point guide to the vital elements of any Spielberg homage:

1. Go West

Super 8 takes place in Spielbergland, a nondescript patch of suburban California, and even features an identical shot to the one in E.T. – The Extra Terrestrial, when the camera rises above the sprawl at night, surveying the grid of homogenous streets. The topography is also a gift to evocative, wide shots at dusk: broad, winding roads, Identikit houses, Norman Rockwell painting away, just out of the frame. Genre need be no obstacle: the location suits horror, whether full-blown like Poltergeist or the kiddie variety represented by Monster House (both Spielberg-produced), as readily as it does the uplifting alien fantasies of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T. and Explorers (the 1985 adventure by the director's friend and contemporary Joe Dante).

2. Be kind, rewind

You are making your film in the 21st century, but do you want to set it there too? Remember: retro sells! Super 8 unspools in 1979, which enables it to look exactly like everyone's memory of the ultimate Spielberg movie. The cinematography aspires to the slightly grainy pre-digital look, while the young protagonists sport geeky glasses and Farrah Fawcett feather-cuts, and that's just the boys (no, really). The only downside is that the characters' conversations lack a vital element that would have been true to the period: in much the same way that no one in Coronation Street ever discusses what's happening in Coronation Street, the teenagers in Super 8 don't mention Close Encounters, not even when they find themselves in the slimy grip of alien tentacles. Also, nobody says: "Hey guys, does anyone want to see Spielberg's zany Second World War action-comedy 1941, which just opened?" Come to think of it, that's pretty realistic: no one went to see 1941 anyway.

3. The keeds are all right

It was François Truffaut who reportedly encouraged Spielberg to make a movie about "keeds". The result was E.T., and Spielberg never looked back. Abrams also puts under-16s at the heart of his movie. The train crash in Super 8 is spectacular, but it is arguably the scenes of the young chums shooting the breeze that lend the film its special fizz. (See also: Richard Donner's The Goonies, produced by Spielberg.)

4. Never trust a soldier

The military is the menace in Close Encounters and E.T., not the aliens. Super 8 has learned well from those examples – it shows the army as sinister and intrusive, prone to abducting and drugging citizens on a whim. Naturally this looks like hysterical paranoia to our post-Guantanamo eyes, but go with it. (See also: Joe Dante's Small Soldiers.)

5. Love the alien

True to the child's-eye perspective which dominates Super 8, the prospect of alien life holds more fascination than fear. Abrams's movie follows the pattern, with its revelation that aliens just want to be loved. Lately, Spielberg has bowed to the Independence Day style of handling visitors from distant galaxies. His 2005 version of War of the Worlds conceded that there are some life forms which respond better to a shoulder-fired missile launcher than to a cuddle. (See also: the Men in Black films, produced by Spielberg.)

6. Keep it real

An aspect of Spielberg's early films that is often overlooked is the authenticity he brings to his portraits of family life. The irresponsible parents in The Sugarland Express, the tense home life in Jaws, the domestic chaos in Close Encounters, the underlying sadness of the fatherless family in E.T. – these contribute to the power of those movies as much as any action sequence or special effect. It's not Ken Loach by any means, but families in Spielberg are recognisably real and flawed.

7. Narrow your horizons

As its tale of kids on BMXs discovering aliens might suggest, Super 8 isn't paying homage to the sombre, Oscar-chasing Spielberg of recent times; Schindler's List in-jokes are disappointingly thin on the ground. Rather it's the director's 1970s and early-1980s incarnation – more commonly known as Good Spielberg – who is the recipient of adoration. His latter-day disciples get their cinematic education from everything he did between his 1971 debut, Duel, and the second Indiana Jones movie in 1984. They tend to tune out in 1985, around the time of The Color Purple, reasoning correctly that pious and overlong feminist melodrama don't present quite the same opportunities for breakneck action set-pieces. So don't waste your time trying to rip off Amistad or Hook. No one bar Spielberg's immediate family really likes those movies.

8. Get Steve!

The presence of Spielberg himself as producer on Super 8 shows he's happy to help with acts of obeisance, but then he always has been (think of Gremlins, Back to the Future, Twister). The original script of Paul was such a generous tribute to Spielberg that he proposed contributing a cameo to the film. (He can be heard on the other end of a phone, receiving plot tips from the eponymous extra-terrestrial.) No Spielberg homage is complete without some input from the man himself. So once you've written your first draft, dispatch a copy to his office and count down the hours until he calls you with script notes and a request for a producing credit. It really is that simple.

'Super 8' is released on Friday

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