Primarily, Super 8 is a flawed homage to the early works of famed filmmaker Steven Spielberg. Just watching the trailer makes that exceedingly obvious. And by no means is that a strike against the latest from director J.J. Abrams, widely known for his work on Lost, Star Trek and the highly underrated Mission: Impossible 3. Here, he gets to essentially recreate the movies that inspired him as a kid growing up in the 1970s, living out the fantasies of his youth. And, in all honesty, he manages to pull off a successful recreation of that bygone era of creative and personal filmmaking … until the movie’s third act just causes everything to collapse.
In the summer of 1979, a group of friends in a small Ohio town are attempting to put together a movie to enter into a local contest. One of those friends, Joe Lamb, has recently lost his mother and throws himself into the world of amateur filmmaking to deal with the loss. His father, the local Deputy Jackson Lamb, is having difficulty connecting to his son and accepting the new family dynamic. One night while shooting their film, Joe and his friends witness a catastrophic train crash and manage to catch every minute of it on film. They soon starting investigating the crash and suspect that it was no accident. Shortly after, unusual disappearances and inexplicable events begin to take place in town, resulting in a confrontation with something more terrifying than any of them could have imagined.
Super 8 successfully walks this fine line of being both a character drama and a mystery for the first two thirds of the movie. I found myself heavily invested in the lives of the characters, particularly the lead character Joe and how he and his father were dealing with the loss of his mother. The tension between he and his father was perfectly handled – both trying to figure out how to handle each other but coming up short. And that served as a great backdrop for a tense search for the mysterious creature terrorizing this little Ohio town. It made for invigorating and addictive watching…and it bubbles up and up, too. As the attacks increase, so does the tension between Joe and his father.
But, this is also where the Super 8‘s problems start to slowly come to light. You may not see it at the time, but when we reach the film’s finale and you start to unconsciously look back at the whole journey, things don’t really add up. It seems like there’s an idea for a great film here, and Abrams does manage to succeed a good 70% of the time, but things don’t really connect all the way. The overall idea falls short. The relationship between the father and son registers really well, but how they kind of come together at the end, and accept their tragic loss, seems forced. It’s like “Well, the movie’s about done – let’s make sure they reconcile before the end credits.” And it’s the same thing with the monster. We get hints of how big and epic this should be, what with the dogs leaving town and the military called in, but when we actually see it? It seems lacking. It looks like it could be taken down with a well-placed tag by a van. The end of the film just doesn’t connect with what’s come before.
The movie just seems to split, with no overlap. The movie is about character development and then it’s about big action. It just switches from one to the next. You can even pretty much pinpoint the moment, too. The film’s reality starts to shift away from what could easily have been anyone’s youth in the ’70s into an action flick. While the kids surviving the train crash from early in the movie is stretching it, it still seems plausible and is grounded in reality. But that melts away as we head into the action-portion of the feature and reality morphs into the hyper-reality of an action movie. The movie doesn’t go over-the-top with it, but it is noticeable and even a little distracting, especially when the film tries to sell realism only to abandon it for the usual clichés.
One thing the movie tries to establish is how both the mysterious creature and Joe, the boy who lost his mother, share this connection. Not a real one, mind you, but a thematic one. Both are suffering and, to an extent, both are on the run. I can see where Abrams is going with this – both Joe and the creature are trying to find their way home – but trying to mirror the stories here doesn’t work. We’re suddenly supposed to feel sympathetic for this creature? A creature that just spent the first third of the movie killing people and terrorizing the town? We are given ample reason to (which I won’t spoil), but to try and connect it to Joe’s story seems incredibly forced. And because of that, it just presents another reason for the movie’s finale to not jive with the rest of the film.
Abrams inability to make the film come together seems to really be the major complaint when it comes to Super 8. That being said, the movie is far from a disaster. It’s a good film, it really is, it just can’t keep itself together for the entire running time. The acting is stellar across the board, with Kyle Chandler as the Deputy dad easily giving us the best performance of the film. He is absolutely devastated and struggling to keep everything together for the sake of a son he can’t connect with. Add in the stress of these mysterious creature attacks and you have a man dealing with far more than he can handle. And Chandler is just absolutely raw. You can see every emotion on his face, in his eyes, in every step he takes. The film definitely would’ve been more interesting if the focus was perhaps on him over his son.
Additionally, the special effects and the score definitely deserves a shout-out, as does the work of the whole cast. I can’t think of a single weak link in the chain. I found the design of the creature to be nicely inspired and the look and feel of a 1970s small-town American to be pretty bang-on. There was definitely a lot of attention given to make this film look and feel era appropriate. It’s just a shame the script doesn’t knock it out the park.
If a little more care was put into the script, I think Super 8 would definitely be the masterpiece that it so craves to be. It’s teetering on the edge of being a homerun of a movie. It’s right there, almost in reach, but it just doesn’t make that crucial connection that ties it all together. It’s a great character piece set on the backdrop of mysterious attacks. The tension is always escalating, the characters are relatable, and the mystery is intriguing. It’s only until the film decides to just barrel ahead to its finale with little thought on what came before does it lose its footing. It may not be perfect, but it’s a good film that I imagine will strike close to home with many viewers.
While the movie is unable to keep itself together for the duration, the same thankfully can’t be said of the Blu-ray release. Paramount Home Entertainment has given Super 8 a stunning video transfer. Colors are vibrant and blacks are deep and pure. While there is evidence of some color tint alterations here and there, everything does look naturally and incredibly detailed. Be it buildings, grass or rampaging creatures, everything is as crystal clear as can be. The Dolby TrueHD 7.1 lossless soundtrack is just as pristine. There’s nary a fault to be found with it. Everything sounds as spectacular as one can expect, with all channels getting use regardless of the scene. Whether it’s one of the creature attacks or a quiet character moment, the sound just envelopes the viewer into the movie. For lack of a better term, everything just sounds…real. And the train derailment sequence is perfect demo material. It is absolutely amazing, both in the visual clarity and the unbelievably immersive audio experience.
Rolling on to the special features, the studio has rounded up a solid collection of bonus content for Super 8.
First up is an audio commentary by Director J.J. Abrams, Producer Bryan Burk and Cinematographer Larry Fong. The commentary covers basically every facet of the film’s creation, including the locals, techniques and equipment used, the actors, special effects, and so on. Seriously, nothing is left unturned in this commentary, making it for an informative and enjoyable listen. It never slows and manages to keep a nice pace for the duration. Definitely worth a listen for fans of the film and filmmaking in general.
Next up is an assortment of featurettes based on assorted aspects of the film’s production. Features include “The Dream Behind Super 8,” “Meet Joel Courtney,” “Rediscovering Steel Town,” “The Visitor Lives,” “Scoring Super 8,” “Do you Believe in Magic?” and “The 8amm Revolution.” Much like the commentary, these featurettes cover the film’s production in pretty solid detail, though things can get a bit fluffy/back-pat-y at times. Some of these featurettes run a bit too short, particularly those focusing on the film’s scoring and the history behind 8mm, but none of them drag or become tedious. Definitely room for more, but the featurettes never overstay their welcome
The amazing train derailment sequence gets its own interactive featurette here, including a combination of interviews, storyboards and much more. While the presentation is a little bit lead-footed, there is actually a nice amount of information on one of the most intense action sequences of the summer.
Wrapping things up, the disc includes thirteen minutes of deleted scenes along with additional DVD and Digital Copy editions of Super 8. The deleted scenes amount to nothing more than little character moments which rightfully cut to keep the movie’s pace.
It’s a solid Blu-ray presentation for an enjoyable, though imperfect, summer thriller. The film manages to really success on many, many levels, but is unable to bring everything together for a rousing finale. Instead of the first two thirds of the film naturally bringing us to the finale, it seems as though the movie jumps ahead and skips over some important beats. That being said, it’s still better than a good chunk of the films released this year and is worth a spin. Go check out Super 8 – it’s worth at least a rental and I’m sure you’ll find plenty to enjoy.
Paramount presents Super 8. Directed by: J.J. Abrams. Starring: Elle Fanning, Kyle Chandler, Joel Courtney, Ryan Lee, Zach Mills. Written by: Abrams. Running time: 112 minutes. Rating: PG-13. Released on Blu-ray: November 22, 2011. Available at Amazon.com.
Tags: J. J. Abrams, paramount, Super 8