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In the summer of 1979 a group of kids set out to shoot a Super 8 horror film. The five boys – the make-up man Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney), the director Charles (Riley Griffiths), the explosions expert Preston (Zach Mills), the actor Martin (Gabriel Basso), and the camera man Cary (Ryan Lee) – convince a girl named Alice (Elle Fanning) to participate, and she drives them to a local train station, where a passing train will offer them important production values. While the scene is filming, Joe notices a truck pull onto the tracks, and watches in horror as it slams into the oncoming train. The kids escape the massive accident, and discover the as yet not dead body of the truck’s driver, who turns out to be their biology teacher, Dr. Woodward (Glynn Turman). Woodward pulls a gun, and instructs them not to talk about what they’ve seen. The kids then flee the scene as the Air Force arrives, headed by Colonel Nelec (Noah Emmerich). Over the next couple of days something monstrous begins to menace the small town, and it becomes clear that Nelec and his team are looking for something extra terrestrial that has escaped from the wreck.

Super 8
I had almost nothing in the way of expectations going into this first viewing of J.J. Abrams’ Super 8, and had largely ignored the film for really no apparent reason upon release. Vague memories of the behind the scenes story of producer Steven Spielberg’s ET the Extra-Terrestrial now come to mind. E.T. is one of an ever-shrinking number childhood favourites I can satisfyingly say has maintained its grip on me well into my adulthood. E.T. is mostly an exception to a rule, and the early ‘80s nostalgia that birthed Super 8 doesn’t really interest me. I’m much more obsessed with reliving the ‘60s and ‘70s, personally, which is funny, since I wasn’t alive at the time. Anyway, E.T., for those that don’t know, began its life as a much darker film. Spielberg originally wanted to create a sequel/counterpoint to Close Encounters of the Third Kind, eventually entitled Dark Skies, which he would produce, not direct. John Sayles was hired to write, and his script, which ended up being largely inspired by John Ford’s Drums Along the Mohawk, featured a group of malicious aliens killing livestock, attacking a broken family, and generally wreaking alien havoc. Spielberg fell in love with the one angelic member of the alien party, and decided to base a movie around him instead. The Beard later claimed that War of the Worlds got the whole evil alien thing out of his system, but I couldn’t help but notice that Super 8, which he co-wrote (on a conceptual level) with, and produced for, J.J. Abrams appeared to have something in common with the original concept. Whatever Spielberg’s influence was on the final project, Super 8 is unmistakably an ode to his science fiction output. Entire sequences are virtually transposed from Jaws, Jurassic Park, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and especially E.T.. There’s not a whole lot of direct connection to what I know of Sayles’ Dark Skies script, but Super 8 is pretty much E.T. with a scary alien standing in for Carlo Rambaldi’s creation.

The good news is that Abrams knows how to shoot an action set piece. Even while plainly riffing on Spielberg’s melodies, I appreciate Abrams’ general refusal to show us too much of his monster, and his focus on the kids during the big military battle towards the end of the film. I can’t fault Super 8 for being a technically inadequate movie. I’ll even admit that some of the scares put me on edge. The script is the real problem. It’s not surprising to discover that this story was cobbled together from two crude, generally unworkable story ideas (one, kids make a Super 8 horror film, and two, a train carrying an alien crashes), because it often feels that story is the afterthought that gets in the way of the set-pieces. There isn’t a compelling or unique story at the base of the screenplay, it’s just more of the same alien invasion tropes we’ve been seeing for decades now (a dozen times in 2011 alone). Worse yet, that’s the point of the exercise. Super 8 refuses to say anything about the genre, and does little to create anything iconic of its own. It just acts to relive movies any of us could simply re-watch on our own. The late ‘70s/early ‘80s nostalgia drips from every frame, for no reason outside of Abrams’ need to pay homage to his childhood, which is strange since there’s little in the way of personality in his story. It’s as if he’s admitting he has no actual memories of the era, just memories of the films of the era. This is fetishistic filmmaking, akin to Rob Zombie’s increasingly boring oeuvre. Abrams might as well have dressed his characters in black Lycra gimp suits for all the good the period fetish does the narrative and characters. The closest I can get to a good excuse is the brief mention of Cold War politics, but a more modern terrorist slant would’ve worked just as well.

Super 8
There’s no compelling reason for the kids to be children of the late ‘70s/early‘80s, but they’re still relatively strong characters, and the little actors give solid A performances. It was easy enough to tell them apart, and their simpler defining characteristics are mostly charming. This means a lot, as actual ‘80s kid-centric adventure movies tend to feature obnoxious, screaming brats. I kind of want to root for these guys, and was even a little charmed by the blossoming romance. The adults, on the other hand, are mishandled. Instead of being generally ignored like they are in E.T., Monster Squad or even (shudder) Goonies, Abrams attempts to give these adults colour and character, and comes up short in every instance. The rift between Alice and Joe’s fathers is embarrassingly uninteresting, tacked-on nonsense (which sees Abrams ripping off M Night Shyamalan, of all people). The Romeo and Juliet angle is entirely unneeded, frustrating, and stops the narrative momentum over and over again. Kyle Chandler tries really, really hard, and my hat is off to him for his actual performance, but the film would’ve been better if he and the rest of the adults could’ve either just been generally faceless, or two dimensional villains, as the evil army guys do work well enough as antagonists and monster bait. Of all the things not to steal from E.T., why the child-centric storytelling style?

Super 8

Video


Super 8 was filmed using a great many types of film, including 8mm, 16mm, 35mm, and Red digital HD RAW, but 35mm is the chief and most obvious format. Abrams and cinematographer Larry Fong actually maintain a strong consistency throughout the film, especially in terms of colour clarity. Their palette pushes blues and greens as a base, then uses strong yellows and oranges for highlights. In other words, it kind of looks like about 70% of big budget action releases these days. Abrams also hasn’t gotten over his affinity for big blue lens flares either, which I can’t really blame on Fong, who had nothing to do with the lens flare-heavy Star Trek (that was cinematographer Daniel Mindel). A lot, probably the bulk of the film takes place in dark, or at least darkened sets and locations. Details could’ve easily been lost in lesser transfers. The lighting schemes are intense enough, and the image sharp enough that nothing important goes missing, which I find pretty refreshing given the number of recent thrillers and horror films that depend on utter blackness to build mood. In darkness this transfer looks its best, producing a clean image with sharp colour and contrast separation, and effective, fine details. There are a few bits where the difference between the smooth, super-clean RAW HD footage, and the grainier 35mm footage are relatively obvious, but general detail levels aren’t much different. Some of the widest day shots are a little mushy, and feature some minor edge-enhancement (generally speaking detail levels are similarly shallow), but overall there’s little in the way of obvious compression artefacts.

Audio


This Blu-ray comes fitted with a solid, but not entirely perfect Dolby TrueHD 7.1 soundtrack (any time a Spielberg production is presented in Dolby instead of DTS I’m a little weirded out). In keeping with the nostalgic streak, Star Wars sound designer Ben Burtt (who worked with Abrams on Star Trek too) was employed, and his most extensive work is the track’s greatest asset. The general design is pretty minimalist up to the first big set piece – that explosive and spectacular train crash. This scene starts with a rough, low murmur, then quickly blows up into a series of expertly mixed, sharply pitched, surround sound-heavy destruction (listen carefully for a few sound design snags from the Star Wars films). Other big moments revolve around the creature attacks, which alternate very nicely between bombast and silence, making for some pretty intense jump scares. My favourite bits are probably those where the monster throws something, and the arc of the sound is able to build in volume organically over the channels. I’m also a pretty big fan of the alien’s vocals, which are unmistakably Ben Burtt-ian. Outside of the action and suspense driven set pieces though, this mix is a little too quiet, and is lacking the kind of dynamic range that I expect from uncompressed mixes. There are basic ambient elements, like wind and chirping birds flowing throughout the stereo and surround channels, and Michael Giacchino’s ‘man do I wish I was John Williams’ (he did so much better with Star Trek and Up recently) score sounds plenty warm and clear, but there’s little outside the big action and thriller moments that makes this track particularly interesting.

Super 8

Extras


I’m not so hot on the film, but this Blu-ray, like Abrams’ Star Trek remake release, features a nice selection of well-made, entertaining, informational, and occasionally even great extra features. These begin with a commentary track featuring Abrams, producer Bryan Burk and cinematographer Larry Fong. The track starts up on a fun foot, with the participants announcing that they’re going to text a question to Spielberg, and assuming they get a reply, he will have unknowingly participated in a commentary track. Following this I’m sad to say that this is a relatively average track. It comes to life with the beside the point friendly discussion among the participants, and then fizzles when they focus more strongly on the on-screen action. I learned a bit, and the participants seem like nice guys, Abrams even makes some surprisingly clever points about the process of screenwriting, but about 20 minutes in I was finding it difficult to maintain interest. I hung on in hopes of someone bringing up Dark Skies, but alas, I hoped in vain. The track is helpful in that it points to a handful of the brief sequences shot on Red cameras over 35mm. Spielberg never answers the question, by the way.

Next is a series of featurettes, which break down as follows:

The Dream Behind Super 8 (16:30, HD): A generally pretentious look at the film’s history, featuring Abrams, cinematographer Larry Fong, and producers Bryan Burk and Steven Spielberg discussing their childhood love for film, their personal history with Super 8 films, working together (and with Matt Reeves, director of Cloverfield), admiration for Spielberg, Spielberg sending his 8mm films to the team to edit together (for something, it’s never really explained), Abrams and Spielberg getting together and working out the story, and actually making the film. Included is raw, impossibly artfully shot behind the scenes footage, and footage from the participants’ personal Super 8 films. Dark Skies is not specifically mentioned, but Abrams sort of, kind of hints at discussing it.

The Search for New Faces (17:50, HD): A look at the casting process, including audition footage, behind the scenes footage, and interviews with Abrams, Burk, casting directors Alyssa Weisberg and April Webster, actors Ryan Lee, Riley Griffiths, Zach Mills, Elle Fanning, Joel Courtney, Gabriel Basso, Ron Eldard, Noah Emmerich and Kyle Chandler. It also covers the 1979 period setting and production design, and the fun the kids had on set. Once again, things are oddly artfully shot, and exceedingly sentimental.

Meet Joel Courtney (14:40, HD): A cute day in the life with the young actor, including his sister, who appears to be his guardian/handler. Joel tells us about his short life, his casting, working with the Elle Fanning, eating on set, make-up, learning on set, and the pressure of being a young actor.

Super 8
Rediscovering Steel Town (18:20, HD): A look at the history of the film’s primary location, Weirton, West Virginia, and the general production design. It includes lovingly rendered footage of the area, more behind the scenes footage, and interviews with Abrams, Burk, production designer Martin Whist, producer Guy Riedel, production assistant John Foglio, and Weirton locals Brian James, Greg Blankenship, Steve Amendola and Dennis Jones.

The Visitor Lives (12:20, HD): An exploration the film’s monster, in terms of development, design (which was a mix of Spielberg, Abrams and Neville Page’s ideas), effects work and tests, and creature performance, which was motion captured by actor Bruce Greenwood. Includes here is more behind the scenes footage, concept images, and more interview with Abrams, Burk, Riedel and Whist, along with effects supervisors Dennis Muren, Kim Libreri, Paul Kavanagh and Russell Earl, and creature designer Neville Page. No one mentions how much ‘The Visitor’ looks like the Cloverfield monster, which Page also designed for Abrams.

Scoring Super 8 (5:30, HD): An interview/behind the scenes look with composer Michael Giacchino, who discusses his motifs and inspirations. It includes footage from his own Super 8 movie, which is an E.T rip-off.

Do You Believe in Magic? (4:30, HD): This is a cute look at cinematographer Larry Fong’s magician/illusionist abilities, including behind the scenes footage of such acts, and interviews with the cast and crew about his skills.

The 8mm Revolution (8:20, HD): This ends the collection by once again looking at the Super 8 format, including interviews with Abrams, Spielberg, Fong, Burk, Muren, Page, Giacchino, Courtney, Griffiths, and historians Norwood Cheek and Paul Korver. It’s a solid brief history of the format, and a nice bookend to the featurettes.

These are followed by an unnecessarily complex, interactive feature that allows the viewer to ‘deconstruct’ the train crash sequence. This includes several different stems, or ‘lines’ under pre-production, production and post-production titles, each with several video pods, or ‘train cars’. Each pod features incredibly brief interviews or behind the scenes clips. These are flanked by load times and load animation that are almost as long, making for a frustrating, needlessly time consuming viewing experience, and this footage would worked much better as a PiP option. I counted 73 of these little nuggets, and see no ‘play all’ option on the page. A massive waste of time. Extras are completed with 14 deleted scenes (12:50, HD).

Super 8

Overall


Super 8 is a fine looking, generally well-acted movie, but it’s largely lifeless, and boringly dependent on the audience’s affection for Steven Spielberg’s science fiction films. The folks that like it can feel free to continue without judgment, but I would like to perhaps suggest two alternate films that cover similar ground. The first is Joe Cornish’s Attack the Block, which follows a somewhat similar kids vs. alien motif, and certainly harkens back to stuff like Goonies and Monster Squad. The difference is that Cornish finds relevance in the oft-told story, and creates something far more unique, compelling, exciting, and even moving than J.J. Abrams (Abrams himself even recommends Attack the Block on the Super 8 commentary). The second suggestion is one I’ve made before, and one I’ll likely make again – Paco Plaza’s The Christmas Tale, which aired on Spanish television as one of the Films to Keep You Awake. Plaza’s fetishistic nostalgia is pushed a few years forward to 1985, but serves largely the same purpose as that of Abrams’ film. The Christmas Tale makes plenty of overt references to films like The Goonies and The Karate Kid, and features brilliant performances from its child actors, but also remembers to include a compelling and darkly funny storyline. It’s more of an inversion of genre tropes than a sloppy kiss to them.

* Note the images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray image quality.


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