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Super 8 (2011)

Paramount Home Entertainment
Blu-ray Disc Released: 11/22/2011

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Review by Mike Long, Posted on 11/13/2011

A lot of terms are thrown around way too much when discussing movies. People are far too cavalier when talking about certain things. Things like "classic", "auteur", "Oscar-worthy" and "worst movie ever made". (That last one is used far too much by people who apparently haven't seen Grown Ups.) Another term is "love-letter". People love to label a movie as a "love-letter" to a certain generation or country or person. At times, this is used accurately when describing a movie which is a hommage or wears its influences on its sleeve. Sometimes its used to give a free pass to a movie which is simply a rip-off. There's no doubt that Super 8 is a "love-letter", and the label can certainly be used accurately here. The problem is that it's an awkward love-letter aimed directly at someone who was involved in the making of the movie.

Super 8 tells the story of Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) and his friends. Set in the late 70s (early 80s?), Joe lives in a small steel-town with his father, sheriff's deputy Jackson Lamb (Kyle Chandler), as his mother has recently died. Freshly out of school for the summer, Joe's best friend, Charles (Riley Griffiths), can concentrate on making zombie movie, along with Cary (Ryan Lee), Martin (Gabriel Basso), and Preston (Zach Mills). The boys ride their bikes around town, shooting in various locations. Charles recruits Alice Dainard (Elle Fanning) to be in the movie, as he wants a female character and she volunteers to drive (although she's not old enough). The group goes to an old train depot to shoot a scene and are stunned to see a massive train derailment. Following this event, the military swarm the town, and all of the local dogs disappear. The boys, who haven't told anyone that they saw the crash, begin to investigate, and Joe suspects that something dangerous may have emerged from the wreckage.

Super 8 was written and directed by J.J. Abrams and produced by Steven Spielberg. If you look at Spielberg's resume, he's served as executive producer on many projects, but when he's credited as producer, it's usually on a film which he's also directing. Thus, we can assume that he took a personal interest and a more hands-on approach to Super 8. Which makes it all the more awkward and intriguing that Abrams has crafted a movie which actually goes beyond a love-letter to Spielberg and acts as if its trying to be a Spielberg movie.

This brings up some interesting questions. Super 8 looks and feels like a Spielberg movies from the early 80s, most specifically E.T. Did Abram do this on purpose as a homage, as a way to impress his producer, or did Spielberg have a hand in directing the film? While watching the movie, I kept wondering, "Why did this have to be set in the past?" The only answer which I can come up with is that this would make it feel more like a Spielberg movie of the time. The most obvious Spielberg touch is the use of lens flare in the movie. Certain shots look like Spielberg shots, but the blue lens flare is a dead giveaway. Now, I like lens flare when used in moderation (I love when John Carpenter uses it in headlights), but this turns into overkill and gets ridiculous.

Abrams and Spielberg's motivations aside, Super 8 is a decidedly uneven movie. Simply put, the first hour is better than the second hour. Again following E.T., the first half of the film maintains most of its focus on the kids. We watch the boys pursue their filmmaking adventures and the fact that they would not have been making a zombie movie at that point in history (go ahead, argue about that one) aside, these scenes are interesting. We get to know the characters and I really liked the fact that the nerdy-looking guy in glasses (Martin) isn't the smart one. The train wreck is spectacular and the mystery which follows takes the movie in an interesting direction.

However, the movie begins to fall apart in the second half, as Abrams opens the movie up too far. The small, intimate film suddenly becomes far too epic as the military takes over the town and the number of characters increases. The movie wasn't necessarily believable up until that point, but it really turns into an outrageous adolescent male fantasy in the second hour and as the story grew more broad, the less involving the movie became. The last 20 minutes is especially erratic, as the movie can't seem to decide how scary it wants to be.

No other filmmaker working today loves to keep secrets and tease the audience more than J.J. Abrams and in this era of spoilers, I applaud him for that. When Super 8 was first revealed, many wondered if it was a sequel to Cloverfield. Well, it isnít (I donít think), but it shares some similarities. The difference is that Matt Reeveís film was able to stay small even as New York City was being destroyed. Super 8 takes an intimate and bittersweet look at childhood and those all important adolescent years and lets the whole thing get out of control. Super 8 is a very well-made movie which certainly has its moments, but Abrams forgot to emulate Spielbergís ability to maintain an emotional bond with the audience for the entire film.

Super 8 really made me question the Halloween poster in Charlesí room on Blu-ray Disc courtesy of Paramount Home Entertainment. The film has been letterboxed at 2.35:1 and the Disc contains an AVC 1080p HD transfer which runs at an average of 30 Mbps. The image is impressively sharp and clear, showing essentially no grain and no defects from the source materials. The colors look very good and the image is never overly dark or bright, despite an abundance of night-time shots. The image is incredibly crisp, giving it an excellent amount of depth. The widescreen is used nicely here and the characters are always nicely separated from the background. The level of detail is great as well. The Disc carries a Dolby TrueHD 7.1 audio track which runs at 48 kHz and an average of 4.0 Mbps. The track provides clear dialogue and sound effects. If you want to know about this track, simply go to the train wreck. This is one of the best examples of surround sound which Iíve heard. Each channel gets involved here and there are distinct individual sounds coming from each speaker. This is crystal clear and never muddy. Itís simply muscular and the perfect surround sound is punctuated by a subwoofer which adds gravity to the scene, but doesnít overwhelm.

The Super 8 Blu-ray Disc contains an assortment of extras. We begin with an AUDIO COMMENTARY from Writer/Director J.J. Abrams, Producer Bryan Burk, and Director of Photography Larry Fong. There are eight FEATURETTES which run a total of 97 minutes. The segments -- "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 8mm Revolution" -- focus on many aspects of the movie, including the casting, the locations, the creature, and the music. The series opens with a confessional of sorts from J.J. Abrams who talks about his love of Super 8 movies and Spielberg films. We get a ton of on-set footage and cast and filmmaker interviews here. "Deconstructing the Train Crash" is an incredibly detailed and intricate interactive feature where the viewer can see concept art, CG tests, and on-set footage, which includes comments from the filmmakers. (I've never seen an extra quite like this.) The Disc contains fourteen DELETED SCENES which run about 13 minutes. Most of these are brief and the bulk are extra moments from existing scenes. We do get some brand new scenes here, but they don't include any new characters or subplots.

Review Copyright 2011 by Mike Long