J.J. Abrams’ collaboration with producer and mentor Steven Spielberg is a throwback to big-budget young adult films of old. Set in the late 1970s, it centers around six young school friends who spend their time making home movies, until one day they accidentally film the beginning of a series of bizarre occurrences in their small town.
Super 8 is almost best understood by its influences. It’s heavily indebted to the films of Steven Spielberg – who also works on the film as producer – as well as a whole genre of kid adventure films from the 1980s. If you start with a mashup of E.T. style and The Goonies character camaraderie, you won’t be far off. But the nice thing is that it doesn’t go to any pains to hide its inspirations. In fact it seems to revel in them; and it becomes a stronger picture by the association.
My first viewing of the film triggered a couple of other memories that actually helped me appreciate it more. The first memory was when I went to see Shutter Island on opening weekend. (And if you haven’t seen it yet, please do. It’s a wonderful movie.) Scorsese did a masterful job and I was basically captivated from the beginning to the end. But halfway through the film I heard someone nearby mumble “Oh, I’ve figured it out.” Which is fine. And probably true; they probably had “figured it out,” meaning whatever surprise or twist was to be had. But it got me thinking about how that’s a bit unfair, and how we don’t carry that over to other movies. Is the point of a good movie purely in an unexpected surprise? If that’s all there is, then you’ll never be able to enjoy a film past its first viewing, if that. For me, the enjoyment was just watching a master craftsman at work, and to be honest I wasn’t even thinking about a twist, or a turn, or really any trick. The film was good enough on its own that that stuff didn’t matter. And I want to watch it again, already knowing full well about the end, and all the bits in between.
The second memory was not so long ago being in a packed theater for a “retro movie night” showing of E.T.. With the exception of a young couple who had brought their kid to see it on the big screen, probably everyone there had seen the movie before, if not multiple times. Were we there for a twist? Were we surprised at really anything that happened on screen? No, and no. But were we captivated from start to finish? Completely. It’s simply a good film, and the ride is more important than a clever, novel “gotcha.”
Super 8 gives me a similar feeling. I’m not suggesting it’s as good as E.T., as that’s really only something time can decide. But it’s certainly comparable, both in feel and style. It’s terrifically lacking in cynicism, a feeling that’s helped along by the kids playing the leads. The group of largely unknown actors do a great job of conveying a nerdy maturity fitting their ages; balancing the awkwardness and excitement of growing up with… well, an alien invasion. It’s hard to put your finger on why everything works despite some thematic elements that separately might come across as either generic or corny. But it might just be that J.J. Abrams is a pretty talented filmmaker. Because most movies when dissected down to the atomic level lose some inherent magic. It’s the director’s job to assemble those parts into a greater whole. And Super 8 is definitely a successful whole, maintaining its youthful energy throughout and delivering a ride that might actually make you feel young again. At least that’s what it does for some jaded film reviewers.
To put it plainly, Super 8 is a home theater knockout. In fact, the possibility exists for the train wreck sequence alone to quite literally knock out some speakers in your home theater if you’re not careful… But let’s start with the video. For a film that constantly name-checks dodgy and grainy home video stock from the ’60s and ’70s, the video quality here is a far cry beyond that. The filmmakers did an exceptional job in maintaining the balance between modern technology and period atmosphere, and Fox followed it up with a wonderful high definition encode. The constant light flares and paranormal phenomena almost serve as a counterbalance to the somewhat staid ’70s clothing and cityscape palette, but there is always something on screen that catches the eye, and fortunately that something is always in perfect detail. But it’s how natural everything looks that is really impressive. Part of the credit for that has to go to the set and wardrobe people, but the Blu-ray really shines in making the experience feel oddly real and familiar. It’s a fun and engrossing movie that is superbly helped by a near-flawless video source.
And the sound is just mammoth. They’ve really done a great job on this disc of creating an immersive experience. Dialogue is well balanced throughout – even during the more whispery parts – and both the music and effects will have you sitting up at attention. The 7.1 Dolby TrueHD track is admirably rich, as in it not only delivers power during the many effects-heavy sequences, but Michael Giacchino’s score really reveals the warmth and fullness of the audio track in many of the more subdued sections. All in all, this disc is an audio and visual treat.
The supplements for Super 8 are generous indeed, even if several of them wear out their welcome with redundant platitudes. First up is a rather engaging commentary track with J.J. Abrams, Producer Brian Burk, and Director of Photography Larry Fong. The trio go into great detail on the genesis of the film and its setting, the many effects used throughout, as well as how the film should overall be styled (and some obvious homages to Steven Spielberg).
Then things get a little bloated. There are eight featurette videos included, totalling over an hour and a half. Videos include: “The Dream Behind Super 8″ (HD, 16:23), “The Search For New Faces” (HD, 17:41), “Meet Joel Courtney” (HD, 14:29), “Rediscovering Steel Town” (HD, 18:19), “The Visitor Lives” (HD, 12:17), “Scoring Super 8″ (HD, 5:24), “Do You Believe In Magic?” (HD, 4:29), and “The 8mm Revolution” (HD, 8:15). And many of them are quite interesting, but probably a half hour could have been shaved off the total pile if we could have just believed people the first few times they talked about how great everyone was to work with and how much fun this film was to make. But in addition to the expected videos, “Meet Joel Courtney” is a fun look at the young lead actor behind the scenes on his first film, while “Do You Believe In Magic?” is an excellent, if brief, look at Director of Photography Larry Fong’s superb magic skills.
There is also a rather sprawling, interactive feature entitled “Deconstructing The Train Crash” that lets you work through the different stages involved in putting together that sequence. There is also a set of quite good deleted scenes (HD, 12:47) that were probably only cut in order to keep the film under two hours. Finally, the set comes with a bonus DVD which simply contains the main feature (minus any supplements) and a digital copy for your portable needs.
Super 8 is the kind of film that is magical in the sense of actually transporting you back to what you liked about films growing up. It’s huge and impressive, and also maintains a compelling enough story throughout. Abrams is finally coming into his own as a filmmaker, and more than just an idea man. To cap it off, this is a reference quality high definition presentation that will be difficult to surpass for some time to come. A must own set.