Paramount // 2011 // 112 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Chief Justice Michael Stailey // November 22nd, 2011
Between Super 8's theatrical debut and its release on home video, I've seen the film six times. If that weren't surprising enough, these repeated viewings have done nothing to diminish its charms.
USAF Case File: 4815162342. Lillian, Ohio. June 1979. Transport of classified government cargo through the Ohio river valley suffered a setback when the train was intentionally derailed by dishonorably discharged USAF scientist Dr. Glenn Woodward. The transport's key package was lost during the accident and efforts are underway to locate and retrieve it. However, complications have arisen in the form of Deputy Sheriff Jackson Lamb and a group of local children who may have witnessed the event. As attempts to interrogate the injured Dr. Woodward have proved futile, we have initiated "Operation Walking Distance" to eliminate further obstacles to our mission and recover the package at any cost. -- Colonel R. Nelec
Before we begin, I'm well aware there's a large number of people who saw Super 8 and did not care for it. I respect that. When it comes to movies, there's no such thing as one-size-fits-all. But something about this film resonated strongly with me. I'm sure part of it has to do with the fact that I was 11 years old in 1979 and had a similar group of friends with similar interests. But there's more to it than that. I feel the same way about Super 8 as I do Joe Dante's Matinee, which was set during the Cuban Missile Crisis. At the core of these adventures is a heartfelt sincerity, tapping an innocence most of us have long since buried or forgotten; a sense of wonder and trust that enables us to see the world with fresh eyes, untainted by life's failures and regrets.
For those who argue that Super 8 is far too derivative, I challenge you to name a film that isn't influenced by the collective conscience of the modern world. Yes, there are references and allusions to E.T., The Goonies, Stand By Me, Moby Dick, Jurassic Park, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Cloverfield, King Kong, and others. And that's okay. The key to storytelling is taking your thoughts, dreams, and experiences and synergizing them into something new, to engage, entertain, challenge, and thrill your audience. I guarantee you've never experienced anything like Super 8's trail derailment sequence, which (to date) may be the most compelling audio/visual sequence sound designer Ben Burtt and ILM have helped create.
The important thing to consider here is that even after six viewings of Super 8, the humor, the tension, and the believability still plays. This is due in large part to an ensemble cast of pre-teen kids who aren't acting; they're being. Big difference. Joel Courtney (Joe) and Riley Griffiths (Charles) are fronting their very first film, and even though their co-stars may be more experienced in front of the camera, the chemistry this group shares is organic and electric. Elle Fanning, with all her impressive credits, is every inch a 12 year old coming into her own; and the moments Alice shares with Joe are as real as our own innocent sexual awakening. As an added bonus, the adults aren't relegated to being two dimensional idiots. The earnestness of Kyle Chandler (Friday Night Lights) as Joe's father and the brokenness of Ron Eldard (House of Sand and Fog) as Alice's dad provide an exceptional balance for what these kids are experiencing, and Noah Emmerich's (Little Children) Captain Ahab-like pursuit of the alien gives the film a ruthless villain (who's also a real coward).
Within fifteen minutes of the opening, every principal character is well-defined. When's the last time you remember that happening? From there the adventure unfolds in classic '70s style, with character development taking center stage and action set pieces used only to fuel the fire. Abrams insistence on using practical sets and effects whenever possible goes a long way towards grounding Super 8 in a palpable reality. From quiet emotionally charged dialogue to the military laying waste to an entire neighborhood, this story lives and breathes carrying us along with rapt attention. Peppered with subtle and overt references to the era and the genre, you'll have a blast discovering all sorts of audio and visual Easter eggs. Yes, Bad Robot's good luck charm Greg Grunberg does make an appearance, as does composer Michael Giacchino (Deputy Crawford) and Leonard Nimoy in his classic In Search Of... television series.
What you don't want to get caught up in are the myriad of historical inconsistencies, be it a Rubik's Cube reference, the appearance of a Sony Walkman, or the color of the Space Shuttle's external fuel tank. Super 8 is not a perfect film. There's a mass exposition dump, an alien inadvertently assisting in a rescue, the heavy-handed significance of Joe's locket, and seemingly interminable shots of the cast looking up at the night sky. It also poses questions like how does a pickup truck derail a massive freight train? How is it that no military personnel were on the train or survived the crash? Not one person other than the kids surfaced during that 10 minute stretch. Why does the alien look like the Cloverfield monster? And if said alien is building a giant magnet, why aren't all metal objects drawn in by its power?
Look, I'm not here to anoint JJ Abrams as the second coming of David Lean or Cecil B. DeMille. What I will say is that he epitomizes the first generation of filmmakers to emerge from the school of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. And he's not alone. Surrounding himself with contemporary artists like Matt Reeves (Let Me In), Bryan Burk (Lost), Larry Fong (300), and Michael Giacchino (Up) -- all of whom possess a shared love of movies and a passion for filmmaking -- JJ is fronting the "Fog City Mavericks" of his generation, the difference being their sandbox is television as well as film. More importantly, there's a humility and self-deprecation that shows they're immensely grateful for the opportunity to do what they do. Listen to the commentary in which half the time is spent pointing out all the seams, flaws, and difficult decisions they had in putting this film together. It's clear they're the same kids who shot Super 8 films in their backyards with neighborhood friends; only this time they have access to better equipment. It's impossible not to be drawn in by that passion.
Presented in 2.40:1/1080p widescreen, cinematographer Larry Wong shot the film anamorphically on 35mm film stock that closely resembles the late '70s. It's a bold, rich image, dripping with color and emotion. Between Abrams' framing, Fong's lighting, and Martin Whist's production design, this is an intimate story that plays on a very big, beautiful canvas. Yes, Abrams' love of lens flares is all over the place, but you get used to it after a few minutes. Super 8's dirty little secret is that pickups and reshoots were all done digitally on the Red camera and doctored to fit seamlessly into the film. And I mean seamlessly. The entire train derailment was shot in the California desert and matted onto the West Virgina landscape. Hell, Lillian's water tower never existed in real life, and it's impossible to tell, even in high definition. Masterful work all the way around. The same holds for the 7.1 Dolby TrueHD audio. Looking for reference quality material to impress your friends? Just flip to the train derailment and watch their heads explode. From the big action set pieces to the smallest moments of everyday life in steel town Ohio, this is one serious audio mix that leverages every inch of the sound field. Composer Michael Giacchino delivers yet another beautiful score that uses silence as effectively as it does its orchestral core. What's more, he chooses specific moments to deftly channel the great John Williams, lending an even greater cinematic '70s vibe. There may not be as many memorable themes, but the two key ones will resonate with you long after the film is over.
In terms of bonus features, Bad Robot and Paramount deliver another gem. I was extremely hesitant to immerse myself in anything that would take away from pure enjoyment of the film. To my amazement, these features only serve to enhance the experience.
* Commentary -- Abrams, Fong, and producer Bryan Burk welcome you into their world for 112 minutes of insights, stories, comedy, and a quest to text Steven Spielberg the perfect question (thus drawing him into his very first commentary). Do they succeed? You'll have to listen to find out.
* Featurettes (98 min) -- Watched individually or as one long behind-the-scenes documentary, the style and tone blend beautifully into Super 8's world. From the origins of Abrams' use of Super 8 cameras as a kid and an intimate portrait of Weirton, West Virginia where the film was shot, to Larry Fong's magic and Neville Page's creature design, we get just enough of a look behind the curtain to make us appreciate Super 8 all the more.
* Deconstructing the Train Crash -- This is the one feature that drove me nuts. I appreciate what they were trying to do, but being forced to click through each individual element on the map and listen to that ridiculous Get Smart/Mystery Science Theater 3000 door opening sequence every time got to be way too much. If you can tolerate the tediousness, the content is definitely worth exploring. I just would have preferred a "play all" function.
* Deleted Scenes (13 min) -- Fourteen alternate, extended, and deleted scenes serve to flesh out certain story elements a bit more, but you quickly realize that Abrams' editors -- Maryann Brandon and Mary Jo Markey -- are extremely skilled at distilling a scene down to its pure essence.
* D-Box Enabled -- Has anyone ever used this functionality?
* BD-Live -- Paramount marketing material for current and upcoming films.
* DVD Copy -- This one might get used quite a bit.
* Digital Copy -- I've yet to utilize any digital copies in my library, but I have a feeling iPad users may jump on this one.
Inspired by classic sci-fi/monster movies and informed by an era in which America's innocence was still hanging on by a thread, Super 8 is love letter to genre fans and a thank you to Steven Spielberg and his peers. Proven to play better to some audiences than others, you owe it to yourself to see in which camp you reside. Super 8 holds a special place in my heart and a prominent place in my movie collection.
"Stop talking about production value, the Air Force is going to kill us!"
Review content copyright © 2011 Michael Stailey; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.40:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* TrueHD 7.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Portuguese)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 112 Minutes
Release Year: 2011
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Deleted Scenes
* Interactive Sequence
* D-Box Enabled
* DVD Copy
* Digital Copy
* Official Site