What do you get when you put Steven Spielberg, J.J. Abrams, and a few other creative folk in a room to come up with a great story idea from which to make a fun summer movie? You get Super 8. Once thought to be a prequel or sequel to the enjoyable Cloverfield, Super 8 grew to become a nostalgic look back at a time when movies let kids be kids, adventures be scary, and story mean more than special effects. J.J. Abrams took writing duties and turned Super 8 into his third major motion picture directing gig (following the terrific Mission: Impossible III and the hugely successful Star Trek reboot), and what results is a film distinct in both its clear influences and the evolving trademark sensibilities of Abrams himself.
Studio: Paramount Pictures
US Rating: Rated Pg-13 For Intense Sequences of Sci-Fi Action and Violence, Language and some Drug Use.
Film Length: 111 Minutes
Video: AVC MPEG-4 1080P High Definition 16X9
Aspect Ratio: 2.40:1
Audio: English 7.1 Dolby TrueHD, French 5.1 Dolby Digital, Spanish 5.1 Dolby Digital, Portuguese 5.1 Dolby Digital and English Audio Description
Subtitles: English, English SDH, French, Spanish and Portuguese
Release Date: November 22, 2011
Review Date: November 19, 2011
“Stop talking about production value, the Air Force is going to kill us”
It is 1979 in the rural simplicity of a steel mill town, and six friends work to complete their little homemade movie amidst the freedom of a breezy summer and the pall of the death of one of their mothers. The story follows Joe, a good kid and a loyal friend. It has been six months since Joe’s mother died in a work accident, and life hasn’t really found its way back to normal, but he focuses on building his models and helping his bossy friend Charles make his ‘Zombie’ movie using the family Super 8 camera. Sneaking out after midnight to shoot at a lonely train station, the friends prepare to film a scene with the backdrop of an approaching train. But when a truck runs the tracks, causing a catastrophic crash, and unleashing something strange, the friends must cover up the fact that they were there and keep the military from finding out what they know. But strange events around town, and a growing conspiracy surrounding the military presence cleaning up the crashed train, give rise to adventure and these kids might just be the best hope for the town.
Super 8 is clearly homage to the power of imagination and adventures keen in many of Steven Spielberg’s works. Spielberg serves as Producer on this film (becoming a heavy element in the marketing), and Director and Writer J.J. Abrams partnership with the legendary filmmaker on this project is no happenstance. Perhaps E.T. is the closets relative of Super 8 in the pantheon of romantically envisioned small town America and the adventure and drama of children leading us through a fantastical story. Setting the film in 1979 – where clothes, music and sensibilities are still very much anchored in the 70’s, Abrahams taps into a crevice of Americana and joyfully explores the sheltered and shielded fictional existence of the town where his characters can live, learn and love; a fictional place doused with the sadness of real-life. It is a beautiful concoction for telling this particular story.
J.J. Abrams wrote and directed Super 8 with the creativity and skill of a miniature epic, even though the closing act of the film can’t quite seem to live up to the events that led up to it. Abrams, by all accounts, is a filmmaker of the Spielberg ilk, sweeping camera moves, attention to detail, and a sublime grasp of how comedy needs tragedy, and action needs drama – but all with the youthful sense of wonder that the director must bring to the proceedings.
Beyond the initial intrigue of ‘what’ escaped the crashed train, the film rises and falls on the strength of the young actors who must not simply proffer angst-filled tirades of pre-teendom, or serve up cute quips as so many films starring children seem to do. These young actors must produce moments of subtlety, soft-spoken moments of vulnerability, and the genuine fear and excitement required during moments or awe and wonder. Fortunately, the young cast is entirely up to the job. Newcomer Joel Courtney plays Joe Lamb, dealing with the recent loss of his mother and the uncomfortable distance he has living with his father, a town deputy working in the Sherriff’s department. Joel is quite the serious young man here, ably portraying the sadness of loss just beneath the surface, while demonstrating loyalty to his friends and awkwardness towards his crush, Alice – played by Elle Fanning (sister of Dakota Fanning). Elle delivers moments of surprising depth and emotion for her roles, but written by Abrams, it is no surprise that such moments are given space to play out among the conspiracy and carnage of the larger plot. Riley Griffiths plays Charles, the filmmaker wannabe who will stop and nothing to get his home made Zombie film finished. Griffiths is brash and blunt at times, but he plays it with a bent toward both likeability and blissful ignorance that he becomes endearing nonetheless. Ryan Lee plays Cary, the pyromaniac of the group constantly wide-eyed at the opportunity to burn or blow something up. Gabriel Basso plays Martin, the more timid member of the 6 friends, and finally Zach Mills plays the ‘brave in words, not deeds’ member of the troupe, Preston.
Rounding out the main cast are Friday Night Lights star Kyle Chandler stars as Joe’s father, Deputy Jackson Lamb, and Ron Eldard as Alice’s troubled, drunkard father, Louis.
Perhaps Super 8’s greatest strength is in its earnestness to tell a story. The visual effects, created by effects masters Industrial Light and Magic, are spectacular – The train crash sequence is masterfully constructed and truly gripping – but the C.G.I is not the gravitational center of the picture. The action and effects sequences support the story rather than serve as the anchor (something rare in a summer blockbuster today) and it is this approach which may surprise – positively – those cautiously entering into what this film has to offer. It is a warm, nostalgic-feeling science fiction film which places its emphasis, and heart, on the people and their lives, rather than the ‘thing’ that has escaped the crashed train. The mystery may be the draw for many to the film, but by the time the credits are rolling, you will realize that the mystery wasn’t what made this film such a sincerely meaningful and enjoyable popcorn picture experience.
Super 8 arrives on Blu-ray with a fine presentation. Writer/Director Abrams and production designer Martin Whist created a warm setting for the film, with slightly muted greens, browns, reds and oranges appropriate for the late-seventies setting, and given the environments of the film – the sparse crash site, the mostly quiet town center, the police station, and the various homes – the right textures and color palettes for the era and the story. Shot on 35MM film (save one or two scenes shot on Red Camera), the level of detail is pleasing and the grain most welcome, with natural flesh tones, deep blacks and the blue tint and lens flares that are quickly becoming trademark for the director, giving the entire film a throwback quality. The Super 8 sequences – as the group of six film their Zombie movie – were actually filmed using Super 16 as ILM was reportedly unable to match the grain inherent to shooting Super 8, but these sequences capture the spirit of the home movie and retain grain and thus the feel of Super 8.
Paramount Pictures brings us a wonderful English 7.1 Dolby TrueHD audio option that will just about derail your home theater system. Healthily active surrounds support the scary, creepy elements of the story, Michael Giacchino’s triumphant score breathes its rich, melodic strings and brass throughout the 7.1 channels, and the action sequences rattle and rumble boldly. The audio is crisp and free of any issues, with superb clarity and a marvelously effective sound design from start to finish. This is a stunningly good audio!
4 / 5
Commentary by writer/director J.J. Abrams, producer Bryan Burk and cinematographer Larry Fong: A very interesting commentary that remains energetic throughout, never too serious but constantly revealing of why characters were who they were, why Charles’ room was adorned with Spielberg movie posters, and the origins of ideas and moments used in the film. By all accounts Super 8 was quite a personal film for Abrams and, opening the commentary with a mention of why Super 8 couldn’t possibly be considered a ‘rip-off’ of E.T. The Extra Terrestrial, Abrams demonstrates his good natured humor.
Behind-the-Scenes Featurettes (HD) (1:37:15): An excellent collection of featurretes that run the gamut of the production. Of particular note are The Dream Behind Super 8, which takes us into J.J. Abrams inspiration to make film, and Scoring Super 8 which covers Giacchino’s outstanding score. These featurettes can be watched individually or together with via Play All.
- The Dream Behind Super 8
- The Search for New Faces
- Meet Joel Courtney
- Rediscovering Steel Town
- The Visitor Lives
- Scoring Super 8
- Do You Believe in Magic?
- The 8mm Revolution
Deconstructing the Train Crash (HD): An interactive examination of the train crash sequence, from the page to the filming, visual and sound effects. While interactive features can often be too clunky for what is derived from them, this one is clever and worth the time spent to walk down the three tracks (pre-production, production, post-production).
14 Deleted Scenes (HD) (12:47): These fourteen deleted scenes cover a lot of ground and show off some discarded story strands, including Joe’s frantic script writing epiphany and the deputy investigating the mysterious occurrences around tow,.
DVD Movie + Digital Copy (compatible with Windows and iTunes)
Super 8 was an excellent summer film – in fact, it’s better even than that. For all the fun and technical wizardry of the Superhero and robot fighting films that have pulled down huge box office numbers over the past few years, only where the story has been compelling and the cast and crew in fine form has the experience been satisfying. Super 8 achieves that rare blend of story rising above the visual splendor of the effects. The climax of the film may not be as fitting of the promise the film had made, but somehow how the mystery is resolved isn’t nearly as important or significant as the lives of the six kids, their adventure, or the world in which they were growing up. Very much recommended!
Overall (Not an average)