"I believe you."
Note: In the following joint Blu-ray review, both John and Will provide their opinions of the film, with John also writing up the Video, Audio, Extras, and Parting Thoughts.
The Film According to John:
After wowing the film-going public with a reboot of "Star Trek" in 2009, J.J. Abrams wrote and directed "Super 8" in 2011, with the help of co-producer Steven Spielberg. There's no mistaking Spielberg's touch, either. "Super 8" looks a lot like "E.T." and "Close Encounters," with a little of "The Goonies" and "Cloverfield" thrown in for good measure. So don't expect a lot of originality from the movie, just a bit of fun. At least for the first half, after which it tends to slide downhill. More on that in a minute.
The setting is pure Spielberg, with Abrams setting his story in a small Ohio town in the summer of 1979. You almost expect Richard Dreyfuss to show up looking for UFO's. Instead, we get a group of youngsters, early teens, using a Super-8 camera to shoot a zombie movie for a local film festival. On location at a railway station one evening, they inadvertently witness, and film, the wreck of a military transport train, which releases something into the countryside the military is keen to cover up and get back. The wreck sets off a series of events that escalates into a full-fledged conspiracy, evacuation, and battle in the little town.
Unlike many sci-fi movies, "Super 8" concentrates not so much on rampaging creatures, blood, or gore as it does on human interactions. The main character is Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney), a boy whose mother has recently died in a factory accident. He's a cute, sensitive kid, whose father (Kyle Chandler) is the town's deputy sheriff. His friends are just as stereotypical as he is: Charles (Riley Griffiths) is the pudgy boy in love with the same girl that Joe likes; Cary (Ryan Lee) is the little guy with the mouthful of braces, fond of blowing stuff up with firecrackers; Martin (Gabriel Basso) is the intellectual member of the group, which we know because he wears glasses; and Preston (Zach Mills) is the one who almost disappears into the woodwork we find out so little about him. Alice Dainard (Elle Fanning) is the young romantic interest, the pretty girl the boys need for their home movie. Then, to complicate matters further, Alice's father (Ron Eldard) is the kind of rowdy alcoholic that someone like Joe's father dislikes intensely.
Next, there are the villains. Of course, there was something on the train that escaped in the wreck, something the military wants to recover. True to the spirit of "Jaws" and "Alien," we don't see this entity until late in the film, just getting fleeting glimpses of it from time to time and, thus, helping to build the mystery. The other villain is the military itself, which we should expect because the military always seems to make a fine evil presence in these sorts of films.
Abrams also builds and maintains a good degree of tension and suspense as townsfolk, as well as mechanical and electrical devices, go missing a few at a time all over the community. Abrams accelerates the action pretty fast by the middle of the film, and we figure we're in for a good time all the way to the end.
However, it's the second half that disappoints, especially the final fifteen minutes or so. If you remember, the endings were among the hallmarks of "E.T." and "Close Encounters." But Abrams, in an apparent attempt to replicate the success of those conclusions, fails rather badly here. His ending, instead of being exciting or inspirational or both, may strike some viewers as silly, contrived, nonsensical, melodramatic, ridiculous, or even humorous. I don't think any of those reactions were the ones the filmmaker was striving to evoke. It's as though Abrams had a good idea for a story but didn't quite know how to end it satisfactorily.
Oh, well, "Super 8" still finds itself in the enviable position of providing enough genuine thrills and enough serious character relationships to carry it through. Just kind of ignore that ending.
John film rating: 7/10
The Film According to Will:
Steven Spielberg. It's hard to come up with another filmmaker who had such a tremendous impact on pop culture. Just in the 1980's alone, he directed "E.T.," and all three "Indiana Jones" movies not to mention worked as producer on "The Goonies," "Back to the Future," "Gremlins," and "Who Framed Roger Rabbit." He did a lot to shape my own childhood as well as the formative years of JJ Abrams. In fact, as teenagers Abrams and Matt Reeves (who directed "Cloverfield" and "Let Me In") were hired to restore some of Spielberg's home movies that were shot on 8 mm. It's no surprise that Abrams first collaboration with Spielberg would be evocative of the man's most beloved films. "Super 8" not only pays homage to pictures like "E.T.," "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," and "The Goonies," it acts as a tribute to a time when all you needed to make a movie was passion and ingenuity, rather than $200 million and the rights to a hip comic book.
"Super 8" is set in the fictional town of Lillian, Ohio during the summer of 1979. Though set in the 70's, this sleepy little burg seems more like a time-lost town existing perpetually in the 50's, untouched by the modern world far past their city limits. This is a time before the instant gratification of the digital era, back when you had to wait three days to develop your film. Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) has suffered the tragic loss of his mother due to an accident at the steel mill. His father, Jackson (Kyle Chandler), a sheriff's deputy, is equally distraught and doesn't know how to deal with his grief or his son. Jackson wants to send the boy off to baseball camp, but Joe has promised to help his best friend, Charles (Riley Griffiths), with his zombie movie. Charles thinks of himself as a junior George Romero though his zombies look more Raimi than Romero. Charles has a ragtag group of preteens to work as his cast and crew. There's lead actor Martin (Gabriel Basso), a nerd with thick glasses; Preston (Zach Mills), a nerd with big ears who is their utility player; and Carey (Ryan Lee) who has a penchant for fireworks and setting things on fire. Naturally, he is their special effects guy.
For his latest feature, Charles has snagged Alice Dainard (Elle Fanning), a pretty girl who Joe has a crush on, to be their starring actress. While shooting a night scene at the train stop, the kids witness a massive wreck as a pickup truck collides head on with an oncoming train. Soon, the Air Force, led by Col. Nelec (Noah Emmerich), arrives en masse in Lillian and offers the barest of information to Jackson and the other local officers. Electronics are stolen, dogs run away, and people begin disappearing. Something escaped from the train and it's up to the pint-sized protagonists to investigate these strange happenings.
"Super 8" is a compelling blend of old-fashioned storytelling with modern filmmaking techniques. The film could probably be described as "Stand By Me" meets "Cloverfield" and set to a John Williams-esque score by Michael Giacchino. The children possess a sense of wonder and curiosity that makes them aware of the dangers around them while the adults remain ignorant or disbelieving. "Super 8" also delves into issues of father-son relationships, which have been at the center of many Spielberg productions.
The child actors Abrams has cast are phenomenal. They not only give brilliant performances, but they even look like they could have been in an 80's movie. Joel Courtney, who makes his film debut here, resembles Henry Thomas in "E.T." while the huskier Riley Griffiths looks a bit like Jerry O'Connell in "Stand By Me." Both are great, but the scene-stealer is Ryan Lee as the mischievous Carey. Lee possesses the holy triumvirate of cute kiddie attributes: braces, a lisp, and an overbite. Then, there's Elle Fanning, the younger sister of Dakota who comes off a fantastic and naturalistic turn in Sofia Coppola's "Somewhere." Fanning manages to give two great performances in the movie as well as in Charles' movie-within-a-movie. There's a magnificent moment when Alice displays her acting abilities for the first time and completely bowls over her male peers.
The dynamics between the kids and the creation of Charles' amateur movie form the spine of "Super 8." It is a slight disappointment when the story devolves into a standard creature feature. One of the criticisms levied at Abrams and the way he apes "Jaws" in the slow build up to the reveal of the monster. The shark was logically hidden by his underwater habitat while Abrams finds artificial methods to keep the thing from viewers. I didn't have a problem with any of that so much as I had a problem with the repetitiveness that gradually came about. Abrams dips into the well once too often by using multiple scenes in which oblivious characters investigate a strange noise only to be snatched away screaming. The climax is far too chaotic and builds to a resolution that ultimately feels rushed. The idea of the creature as a metaphor for Joe's pain comes off as ham-fisted and never fully effective.
And if you loved the lens flares in "Star Trek," you'll love the lens flares in "Super 8," a trademark Abrams borrows liberally from "Close Encounters." If you didn't, you may find them distracting, particularly when a lens flare pops up while the kids are spelunking down a dark subterranean tunnel. Still, Abrams direction is strong and the train wreck stands as one of the best action sequences of the year. The children run for their lives amidst a mass of explosions as train cars careen in every direction. My eardrums nearly burst during the IMAX screening I attended.
"Super 8" isn't empty spectacle. It's a blockbuster with genuine emotion and an aura of magic hearkening back to the heyday of Spielberg's classics. It's not a film only about special effects, but about summer friendships, first love, and pure imagination.
Will's film rating: 7/10
Paramount's video engineers use a dual-layer, fifty-gigabyte BD50 and an MPEG-4/AVC encode to reproduce the film on high-definition Blu-ray in the film's theatrical aspect ratio, 2.35:1. The transfer looks about as good as the original print, which varies considerably in picture quality depending on the type of shot involved, the filmmakers having used 8 mm, 16 mm, 35 mm, and digital photography throughout the movie. Mostly, though, it's pretty good.
The screen images are almost entirely crisp and clear, except when the filmmakers want them to look intentionally otherwise. Colors are bright and vivid when necessary, and even darker areas of the screen reveal good detail. Sharp definition, realistic skin tones, and no traces of filtering or edge enhancement in the transfer add up to a satisfying viewing experience.
Seven channels and a bass feed are good, no? Paramount ensure the best out of the film's soundtrack by using lossless Dolby TrueHD 7.1 audio. The first thing one notices is how wide the front-channel stereo spread is and how effective the surround activity can be, with wind, locomotives, and explosions roaring all around the listening area. Then, add in a thunderous low end, a crystal-clear midrange, and a powerful dynamic impact, and you get a sonic experience to match or surpass the visual one. If you have a really good audio system, the train wreck will bring your house down.
Disc one of this "Ultimate 2-Disc Edition" contains the feature film in high-definition Blu-ray and a number of extras. Among the bonus items is, first, an audio commentary by director J.J. Abrams, producer Bryan Burk, and cinematographer Larry Fong. Next is a series of eight featurettes in high definition, totaling about ninety-seven minutes. These include "The Dream Behind Super 8," "The Search for New Faces," "Meet Joel Courtney," "Rediscovering Steel Town," "The Visitor Lives," "Scoring Super 8," "Do You Believe in Magic?" and "The 8 mm Revolution." After that, there are fourteen deleted scenes, also in high def, totaling about thirteen minutes. Then, there is an interactive feature called "Deconstructing the Train Crash," a self-guided tour from script to screen.
The Blu-ray disc also contains a D-Box Motion System, if your setup is equipped for it; eighteen scene selections; bookmarks; English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese spoken languages and subtitles; English audio descriptions; and English captions for the hearing impaired.
Finally, because this is a combo edition, the second disc, a DVD, contains the feature film in standard definition and a digital copy code for download of the film via iTunes or Windows Media (the offer expiring November 22, 2012). The two discs come housed in a flimsy double Eco-case, further enclosed in a light-cardboard slipcover.
Like any good Spielberg picture, Abrams's "Super 8" contains more than its share of character relationships and family troubles, which tends to slow down the action but provides a reason to care about the people involved in the story. If it's all a little overdone, well, that comes with the territory because while for the most part "Super 8" is tense and exciting, it's also more than a little exaggerated and corny at the end. You take what you get.
"It's in the news. That means it's real."