Six young friends shooting an 8mm zombie movie witness a horrific train derailment. What they and the other residents of their small Ohio town donít realize until some days later is that something escaped during the accident, something the Air Force will stop at nothing to keep under wraps.
J.J. Abrams and I have obviously seen the same movies. He also obviously loved and absorbed the same flicks I did while growing up, which may explain why I took to Super 8 from pretty much the first frame. This movie is a lovingly nostalgic nod to the blockbuster genre movies of the late Ď70s and early Ď80s, specifically those that made Steven Spielberg (who acts as producer here) a household name and helped changed the face of commercial moviemaking.
But imitation can only get you so far, and a movie ultimately has to stand or fall on its own merits. This one stands, further cementing Abramsís reputation as one of the best genre/blockbuster/commercial filmmakers currently working. A couple years ago I gushed like mad over his resurrection of Star Trek. This review will be much of the same, albeit even more inarticulate. This movie made me feel and think like a ten-year-old, and I tend to regress when trying to explain why.
Iím tempted to go lame and just say that I love this movie because it worked for me in much the same way the movies it echoes worked for me. Itís fun and funny, counterbalancing the action and fantastical stuff with sharp humor and likeable characters. But thatís really only half the reason I enjoyed the movie as much as I did. The movie is also incredibly well crafted, with Abrams exhibiting a mastery of the tools heís using. And itís more than just technical proficiency. Hell, Roland Emmerich is technically proficient, but Abrams knows how to use those tools toward a storytelling end.
Iím explaining this terribly, I know. But what I took away from Super 8 was the feeling that Abrams wanted to make a movie that recalled a specific point in American cinema, only do so by using all of the toys that contemporary cinema has to offer. And thatís exactly what he did, and he did so in a way that not only is effective but is also a lot of fun to watch come together. I enjoyed watching Abrams construct it just as much as I enjoyed the final result, and I was able to do so without being taken out of the movie, which is a definite plus. Most people wonít care, but I certainly did.
Before I get hopelessly, distractingly caught up in apoplectically defending and pointlessly deconstructing the movie, let me go ahead and mention some of what makes Super 8 fun and entertaining (which is really all thatís important in this sort of flick but doesnít lend itself to hefty word counts). The immensely likeable kids (Abrams assembled a great bunch) have a funny, believable dynamic, cursing, insulting, and trying to one-up one another, and constantly trying to make themselves sound ďadult,Ē which is exactly what boys that age do. (Speaking of the kids, the one who fancies himself a filmmaker? I know the guy that kid will grow up to be. Not someone like that, but the exact guy.)
The visual effects are terrific, and so is the action. The train derailment that featured so prominently in the movieís trailers and TV spots is arguably the most spectacular ever staged. The creature attacks, full of such old-school delights as strange noises, twisted metal, and unseen horrors, are great. The inevitable (and inevitably futile) military attack on the creature is a highlight, bringing to mind what Ishiro Honda might have done had he been granted access to actual military technology. The movieís also manipulative and a little sappy, often nakedly so, but even the manipulation works, so why complain? And make sure you stick around for the end credits; what youíll see there is as much fun as the movie itself (maybe even more).
One personís homage is another personís pastiche is another personís theft. There are conscious nods to Spielbergís early style, and some view this as laziness on Abramsís part. Itís hard not to watch a bicycle brake and the tire bend toward the camera without thinking of a very similar shot in E.T., but I certainly wouldnít accuse Abrams of lazily ďborrowingĒ from Spielberg.
There are a number of ways of defending Abrams from such a charge--you canít pay tribute to Spielberg without seeming to copy him; you canít play the blues without slipping in some Robert Johnson; nobody ever knocks Scorsese for Xeroxing the neorealists--but I donít see why any of itís necessary. Abrams has been perfectly forthright with his intentions here (which some people might want to take as a warning sign). But perhaps Iím biased; maybe itís unlikely I would knock a director whose work I enjoy for attempting to recreate the style and feel of the early work of one of my favorite filmmakers. Perhaps not; Iím pretty sure Iíd be ripping Abrams had he failed.
For all of the obvious influence, though, this is still Abramsís movie (and not just because of the lens flares). This is by no means Poltergeist, where someone elseís name is in the credits but itís clear Spielberg was calling the shots, nor is it like one of those faceless Amblin productions from the Ď80s, with an established filmmaker being brought in to perform a paint-by-numbers job. Abrams does what he wants here, and he definitely does it his way (and if that way includes letting the finale run a little longer than is necessary, so be it).
The movieís throwback style is likely to arouse feelings of impatience in some viewers. Anyone who is accustomed to having a movieís ďthingĒ trotted out for visual effects shot after visual effects shot may be annoyed by Abramsís insistence on keeping this movieís ďthingĒ in the dark (pun fully intended) for much of the movie. Here you get to see what the being that escapes from the train does more than you get to see the being itself; even when the reveal comes the ďthingĒ stays largely hidden in the shadows, never coming into the light for a showy money shot. But all of that is true to the tenets of the sort of movie Abrams is attempting to recall, and the less-is-more approach Abrams learned from Spielberg (and Spielberg learned from Hitchcock) still works. Abrams wisely understands that the sense of wonder that is a huge component of this sort of movie is lost whenever the fantastical element is dragged out into the open and left there.
So I said all of that when all I really needed to say was this: Super 8 works in much the same way its thematic/stylistic forebears did, and the rewards are much the same. In many ways itís the same sort of throwback fun Joe Cornishís Attack the Block (the two would make a great double feature) provides, but I actually enjoyed this one a little bit more (which I suppose means Iíll be slicing into a juicy homburg for supper). Iím considerably more jaded and cynical than I was thirty years ago, but this movie reminded me of how movies used to make the younger me feel, and thatís no easy feat.
Super 8 is presented in its original 2.40:1 aspect ratio; the 1080p transfer has been encoded with AVC onto a 50GB disc. This is an absolutely flawless presentation. Abrams and cinematographer Larry Fong used a mix of film and digital photography (primarily the former), but Iíll be damned if I could spot any difference, as the image is consistently film-like.
More than half the movie takes place at night, and even a lot of interiors feature low lighting, but there are no problems, as black levels are deep and shadow detail is excellent. At times the look consciously echoes that of anamorphic photography from the Ď70s, so occasionally it has a hint of softness and colors in brightly lit exteriors bloom ever so slightly, but clarity and detail are still what youíd expect from a modern blockbuster.
Lossless audio comes in the form of a Dolby TrueHD 7.1 track, and I have two words to describe it: holy crap. As perfect as the video is, the audio might be even more perfect (and before anyone points out that such a degree of perfection is impossible, thatís my story and Iím sticking to it). Itís atmospheric, with exacting sonic detail for each location.
The soundstage is incredibly wide and completely immersive. Dialogue sounds terrific; Michael Giacchinoís wonderful score sounds beyond terrific. The low end pushes as deep at it can and then keeps going; you can expect the train derailment to be used as demo material for years to come. I know Iíve gone a bit overboard with the hyperbole here, but I think this is one case where itís actually warranted; this things sounds absolutely fantastic.
French, Portuguese, and Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks are also included, as is an English Audio Description track; English, English SDH, French, Spanish, and Portuguese subtitles are available.
The commentary by J.J. Abrams, producer Bryan Burk, and cinematographer Larry Fong is surprisingly technical in nature. Itís not bad, but if youíre looking for talk of the movies that influenced this one (which is what I was expecting), you wonít find much here.
All of the video-based extras are presented in high-def. Up first is a series of eight featurettes, which combine to form what is more or less a making-of doc. They break down like this:
The Dream Behind Super 8 (17 minutes) covers the movieís conception. It also touches on Abramsís first filmmaking ventures, the beginnings of his friendship with Cloverfield and Let Me In director Matt Reeves, and the first job he and Reeves performed for Spielberg.
The Search for New Faces (18 minutes) covers the casting process.
Meet Joel Courtney (14 minutes) centers on the movieís young lead actor, combining interview clips with footage of Courtneyís experiences during a dayís shooting.
Rediscovering Steel Town (18 minutes) delves into the movieís production design and location work.
The Visitor Lives (12 minutes) breaks down the conception and creation of the movieís creature.
Scoring Super 8 (6 minutes) is an interview with composer Michael Giacchino.
Do You Believe in Magic? (4 minutes) is a throwaway bit showcasing some of the magic tricks cinematographer and amateur illusionist Larry Fong performed to entertain the cast and crew.
The 8mm Revolution (8 minutes) is basically a love letter to the 8mm format, with Abrams, Spielberg, Fong, and others discussing its history and importance.
Deconstructing the Train Crash is an interactive feature that offers an exhaustive look at the train derailment. The interface is more than a little clunky, designed to look like multi-car trains on tracks, each ďtrainĒ a different phase of filming, each ďcarĒ a separate featurette. Take the time to work your way through (which could take forever) and every sequence-related question you could possibly have will be answered.
Rounding things out are fourteen deleted scenes (13 minutes). All are quite brief, and they wouldnít have added anything of substance to the movie.
Were I twelve years old, this would undoubtedly be my favorite movie of the year. Iím not, but it probably still is.