Back in college, studying film analysis, I read an essay analyzing the differences between sci-fi and horror. The distinction that most stuck with me was this: In horror scientists are bad guys and military men are good guys, while in sci-fi scientists wear the white hats and military men the black. It’s a vast generalization, of course, but it’s true more often than you’d think. Consider horror’s reckless mad scientist creating a monster the military is then forced to battle, and contrast that with the familiar sci-fi tale of a peaceable alien confronted by a trigger-happy army with a scientist in the background pleading that they hold their fire. The monster and the alien might look exactly the same, but the genre dictates how they behave and how they will be treated.
Super 8 initially looks and feels like a horror movie, with funhouse shocks and wire-tense silences and a menacing creature snatching at extras from the edge of the frame, never clearly visible and all the more frightening for it. But the horror-esque aesthetic is misleading, as the morality of those telltale characters soon makes clear. Ultimately 8 is sci-fi, more interested in exploring and finding connections than in “othering” and obliterating the enemy. Marrying a horror-style aesthetic with a sci-fi sensibility leads to some awkwardness—and the blasé dismissal of a few inconvenient plot points—but both halves, however ill-matched, possess some strength, and the movie’s curious sci-fi heart is disarmingly sweet.