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Super 8
Director: J.J. Abrams
Screenplay: J.J. Abrams
Stars: Kyle Chandler (Jackson Lamb), Elle Fanning (Alice Dainard), Joel Courtney (Joe Lamb), Riley Griffiths (Charles), Ryan Lee (Cary), Gabriel Basso (Martin), Noah Emmerich (Nelec), Ron Eldard (Louis Dainard), Zach Mills (Preston), Glynn Turman (Dr. Woodward)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Year of Release: 2011
Country: U.S.
Super 8
Super 8 You might imagine that writer/director J.J. Abrams was wearing a “WWSD” (“What Would Spielberg Do?”) bracelet throughout the production of Super 8, which effectively harkens back to the good ol’ days of the Reagan era when each summer movie season promised a new Spielberg-directed or -produced adventure yarn, whether it be Indiana Jones swashbuckling in pursuit of a religious artifact or the Goonies searching for pirate treasure in order to save their beloved neighborhood from developers.

Unlike so many of today’s impersonal digital blockbusters, Spielberg’s ’80s greatest hits had character and personality, not to mention an often deft blending of humor and horror (Remember that gross-out dinner in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom? How about the gremlin in the juicer in Gremlins?). Abrams, who created the cult TV series Alias and Lost and rebooted the Star Trek franchise two summers ago, has long been an heir apparent to Spielberg (who, with two films coming out later this year, is still very much in the game), and having Spielberg officially brand Super 8 with his producer credit all but seals the deal. And, while Super 8 is a fun reworking of the old 1950s science fiction trope of teenagers saving the day from marauding aliens while adults (e.g., the Establishment) fumble around and generally make things worse, that effervescent, magical touch that Spielberg gave to his best productions eludes Abrams. As good as it is, Super 8 feels more like an impersonation of Spielbergian cinema rather than an elaboration.

As the title suggests, Super 8 is set in the pre-digital era of 1979, when Walkmans (a personal stereo!) were a new technology, Walter Cronkite was still on the air, and budding young filmmakers made their backyard masterpieces on 8mm film (not surprisingly, this is how both Abrams and Spielberg first indulged their love of cinema). The story takes place in a small, industrial town in Ohio where 13-year-old Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) lives with his recently widowed father Jackson (Kyle Chandler), who is one of the town’s deputies. Joel’s mom was killed in an industrial accident, which Abrams poignantly depicts via the film’s opening shot of a worker solemnly replacing the number on a massive “Days Since Our Last Accident” sign in the middle of a steel plant. Joe’s best friend is Charles (Riley Griffiths), a gregarious would-be filmmaker who is midway through production on a ramshackle zombie movie called The Case, which he hopes to enter in an amateur film festival. Charles has recruited all of his friends to play roles in front of and behind the camera: Joe does make-up, Martin (Gabriel Basso) plays the lead role of a private detective, and Cary (Ryan Lee) plays the various zombies and provides lighting and explosives via his vast arsenal of fireworks (the frequent suggestion that Cary is a budding pyromaniac gives him an amusingly dark edge). The only female member of the group is Alice (Elle Fanning), an icy blonde on whom Joe has an obvious crush even though her father, Louis (Ron Eldard), is at serious odds with Joe’s dad.

The story takes a turn when Charles, Joe, Alice, and the rest of the motley film crew are shooting a scene after midnight at a deserted train depot and witness the spectacular derailing of a military train carrying mysterious cargo. The train was purposefully derailed by their science teacher Dr. Woodward (Glynn Turman), who drove his truck directly into the oncoming locomotive (and implausibly lived in order to dispense important narrative information). The next day the town is swarming with military, led by the no-nonsense Colonel Nelec (Noah Emmerich), whose evasive answers and refusal to cooperate with local authorities signals a major cover-up. Soon, mysterious things start happening: Every dog in town takes off for the hills while car engines, microwaves, and other electronic devices start disappearing, as do various townspeople, some of whom we see snatched up by a giant, unseen behemoth that clearly escaped from the train and is now lurking on the outskirts of town. Meanwhile, the teen crew continues trying to make their movie, as Charles, ever the prescient and opportunistic showman, realizes that all the weird happenings are providing his movie with that most crucial of elements: “production value!” Super 8, of course, has plenty of production value itself, although Abrams wisely holds back most of the special effects until the film’s second half.

The various mysteries in Super 8 are eventually resolved, and once they are, the story is revealed to be a surprisingly simple retooling of some basic paranoid science fiction tropes. There is plenty of intrigue as the mystery unfolds, even though some of Abrams’ mechanisms for relating important information are nearly as clumsy as what we would expect the kids to do in their Super 8mm home movie (which we get to see in its finished state during the closing credits). Nevertheless, the film still works because the teen characters are so inviting and fully formed, not to mention amusingly gregarious and sometimes silly-raunchy in a way that recalls the original Bad News Bears (1976), minus the racism.

Joe is clearly a “little boy lost” in the mold of E.T.’s Elliott, albeit several years older and without the pent-up anger, and Charles is a funny amalgam of all of moviedom’s chubby pranksters mixed with the intensity of cinematic commitment that we imagine launched both Abrams and Spielberg on their career trajectories. The period detail is both exquisite and fun in its evocation of the waning days of the Carter years, whose aesthetic ugliness in everything from wallpaper to clothing now exudes a peculiar charm that can be found nowhere else. For children of that era (myself included), it’s a wonderfully nostalgic throwback, essentially reworking the question that George Lucas asked in American Graffiti (“Where were you in ’62?”) and adding some monster mayhem that doesn’t completely eliminate the possibility of a Close Encounters climax of awe-inspiring melding with the cosmos. Abrams isn’t Spielberg yet, but he’s inching closer.

Super 8 Blu-Ray + DVD + Digital Copy

Aspect Ratio2.35:1
Audio
  • English Dolby Digital TrueHD 7.1 surround
  • French Dolby Digital 5.1 surround
  • Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 surround
  • Portuguese Dolby Digital 5.1 surround
  • SubtitlesEnglish, French, Spanish, Portuguese
    Supplements
  • Audio commentary by writer/director J.J. Abrams, producer Bryan Burk, and cinematographer Larry Fong
  • “The Dream Behind Super 8” featurette
  • “The Search for New Faces” featurette
  • “Meet Joel Courtney” featurette
  • “Rediscovering Steel Town” featurette
  • “The Visitor Lives” featurette
  • “Scoring Super 8” featurette
  • “Do You Believe in Magic?” featurette
  • “The 8mm Revolution” featurette
  • “Deconstructing the Train Crash” interactive feature
  • Deleted scenes
  • DistributorParamount Home Entertainment
    SRP$39.99
    Release DateNovember 22, 2011

    VIDEO & AUDIO
    Super 8 looks and sounds fantastic on Blu-Ray. The high-definition 1080p transfer is beautifully rendered, with great color saturation and strong contrast that renders excellent detail in even the darkest of night shots. The images maintains a slight veneer of grain that gives it a filmlike appearance and escapes the overly digital look even though numerous shots in the film were actually shot on the Red Camera and not on 35mm. The Dolby Digital TrueHD 7.1-channel surround soundtrack is a knockout, with fantastic separation among the surround channels to immerse you in the carefully engineered mayhem (the train crash scene is a particularly standout and a definite choice for home theater show-off piece).
    SUPPLEMENTS
    Unlike his cinematic mentor Steven Spielberg, writer/director J.J. Abrams is more than happy to contribute to the screen-specific audio commentary along with producer Bryan Burk and cinematographer Larry Fong (they joke about Spielberg’s refusal to do audio commentaries right at the beginning). Even without Spielberg’s direct contribution, the commentary is a fun and lively affair, with plenty of behind-the-scenes production anecdotes, discussion of the film’s various inspirations, and explanation of details like the horror posters on Charles’s bedroom walls (Abrams thought that putting Spielberg posters up would be too obviously self-referential). Also on the Blu-Ray are eight making-of featurettes that, when viewed together, comprise a 100-minute documentary covering virtually every aspect of the production, from the story genesis, to casting the relatively unknown child actors, to the various special effects. Of the featurettes, my favorites were “The Dream Behind Super 8,” which explores the initial story ideas and also includes clips from actual Super 8mm films made by Abrams, Burk, and Fong when they were teenagers, and “Rediscovering Steel Town,” which focuses on the history of Weirton, West Virginia, the decaying steel town that served as the film’s primary location. “Deconstructing the Train Crash” is a cool interactive feature that allows you to explore various aspects of the train crash sequence in preproduction, production, and postproduction via interview clips, photographs and storyboards, and various stages of CGI. Finally, the disc includes 14 deleted scenes, most of which are fairly short (altogether they only run about 13 minutes).

    Overall Rating: (3)

    Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick

    All images copyright © Paramount Home Entertainment


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