Solidly entertaining 10 years later 4 Stars

What do you get when you put Steven Spielberg, J.J. Abrams, and a few other creatives in a room to come up with a story idea from which to make a fun summer movie? Well, 10 years ago you got Super 8. What I have always appreciated about this film is its unrelenting focus on its characters. Abrams’ fascination with a driving mystery, a puzzle box that its characters must assemble as the picture progresses, is on display here but it carries the film along nicely. The conceit of trying to understand what escaped the crashed train is a fun one, but only as the carrot for the characters to chase. The mystery itself, or rather where the mystery lands, in and of itself isn’t all that compelling. No, rather the idea is interesting only insofar as it relates to the group of kids we’re following. That, curiously, is a strength and a weakness of the final product.

Now 10 years since the film premiered, Abrams’s skills and strengths as writer and director are more acutely seen. For fans it’s worth watching again and for naysayers, worthy of reappraisal. For this fan, the film holds up quite nicely.

Super 8 (2011)
Released: 10 Jun 2011
Rated: PG-13
Runtime: 112 min
Director: J.J. Abrams
Genre: Mystery, Sci-Fi, Thriller
Cast: Joel Courtney, Jessica Tuck, Joel McKinnon Miller, Ryan Lee
Writer(s): J.J. Abrams
Plot: During the summer of 1979, a group of friends witness a train crash and investigate subsequent unexplained events in their small town.
IMDB rating: 7.0
MetaScore: 72

Disc Information
Studio: Paramount
Distributed By: N/A
Video Resolution: 2160p HEVC w/HDR
Aspect Ratio: 2.39.1
Audio: English 7.1 Dolby TrueHD, Spanish 5.1 DD, French 5.1 DD, Other
Subtitles: English SDH
Rating: PG-13
Run Time: 1 Hr. 51 Min.
Package Includes: UHD, Digital Copy
Case Type: Standard with slipsleeve
Disc Type: BD50 (dual layer)
Region: A
Release Date: 05/25/2021
MSRP: $25.96

The Production: 4/5

“Stop talking about production value, the Air Force is going to kill us”

 

It is 1979 in the rural simplicity of a small 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 whose mother died recently in a work accident, and life hasn’t quite found its way back to normal. In his grief, Joe focuses on building his train 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 an homage to the power of imagination and adventures found in many of Steven Spielberg’s earlier works. Spielberg serves as Producer on this film, 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, Abrams 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 story.

 

J.J. Abrams wrote and directed Super 8 as miniature epic, even though the closing act of the film can’t quite seem to live up to the events that lead 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 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-teens 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 played 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 timider member of the 6 friends, and finally Zach Mills plays the ‘brave in words, not deeds’ member of the troupe, Preston. Rounding out the film’s main cast is 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 legendary Industrial Light and Magic, are terrific. The train crash sequence is masterfully constructed and gripping – but the CGI is not the gravitational center of the picture. The action and effects sequences support the story rather than serve as the anchor and it is this approach which may surprise – positively – those cautiously engaging 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 have been the enticement for many to the film, but by the time the credits are rolling, you’ll recognize that the mystery wasn’t what made this film such a meaningful and enjoyable popcorn picture experience.

Video: 4/5

3D Rating: NA

Super 8 is a great candidate for the UHD treatment and while the results are mostly strong, there are a couple of things to note.  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 still very pleasing and the grain welcome, with natural flesh tones, deep blacks, and the blue tint and some of Abrams’ lens flares. The Super 8 sequences – as the group of six film their Zombie movie – were 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.

The level of detail is greater at times but not always, and the HDR-Dolby Vision-helps produce some flawless blacks and delicious color contrasts, but sometimes the image is so deep in the black that detail seems to disappear. The sequence under the town near the film’s end, for example, are darker than I recall the Blu-ray showing and that can make it hard to decipher what’s happening at times. So, in the end, there’s some beautiful benefits found in this 4K release and a couple of things that give me pause. I’d say the plusses outweigh the minuses and I’m certain this release is the way I’ll choose to watch it in the future, but I may need to adjust my settings to account for some of those dark scenes.

For an related view, check out Robert Harris’ A Few Words About… thread for his thoughts.

Audio: 5/5

Paramount Pictures delivers the same strong English 7.1 Dolby TrueHD audio option available on the previous Blu-ray release. Despite being 10 years old, the audio is still impressive. The signature train crash sequence remains a standout moment that shows of the strengths of the audio and is piercingly effective. As I wrote in my Blu-ray review, 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!

Dialogue is clean and clear out of the center channel.

Here’s a link to the interview I did with composer Michael Giacchino about Super 8 when it was first released on Blu-ray.

Special Features: 4/5

Commentary by writer/director J.J. Abrams, producer Bryan Burk and cinematographer Larry Fong: An 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 (1:37:15): An excellent collection of featurettes that run the gamut of the production. Of 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: 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 (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.

Digital Copy

Overall: 4.5/5

What I have always appreciated about Super 8 is its unrelenting focus on its characters. Abrams’ fascination with a driving mystery, a puzzle box that its characters must assemble as the picture progresses, is on display here but it carries the film along nicely. The conceit of trying to understand what escaped the crashed train is a fun one, but only as the carrot for the characters to chase. The mystery itself, or rather where the mystery lands, in and of itself isn’t all that compelling. No, rather the idea is interesting only insofar as it relates to the group of kids we’re following. That, curiously, is a strength and a weakness of the final product.

Now 10 years since the film premiered, Abrams’s skills and strengths as writer and director are more acutely seen. For fans it’s worth watching again and for naysayers, worthy of reappraisal. For this fan, the film holds up quite nicely.

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Published by

Neil Middlemiss

editor

Colin Jacobson

Senior HTF Member
Joined
Apr 19, 2000
Messages
10,869
This film holds a special place in my heart because those kids were my childhood, particularly my teenage and college years making movies on Super 8 film.

That's why I SHOULD love "Super 8", as I also made 8mm flicks as a kid.

And I loved those late 70s/early 80s Spielberg movies.

Everything about "S8" should resonate with me - but it doesn't.

I've watched it multiple times and always hope it'll click, but that never occurs.

It just feels like Abrams' self-conscious attempt to emulate Spielberg but it's too much homage and not enough of its own movie...