Blu-Ray Review: Super 8
1975-1985 was the decade that really brought the name Steven Spielberg to the forefront of the world. Spielberg’s films were an amazing amalgamation of special effects, music, and ordinary people experiencing extraordinary things. That last bit was what really entranced me about his work, and even carried over to many of the films he first produced under the Amblin Entertainment production banner. These included such films as Gremlins, The Goonies, and Back to the Future (my favorite film of all time). That idea that you (the viewer) could be the everyman who discovered pirate treasure, aliens in your backyard, or travel back in time was really incredible.
Writer/Producer/Director J.J. Abrams was greatly influenced by Spielberg’s films as well. In fact, he actually managed to help repair Spielberg’s original 8mm home movies when he was in his teens. Eventually, Abrams would be one of those rare filmmakers who ended up working with one of his inspirations, when Spielberg teamed up to executive-produce Super 8. Most filmmakers have a film that feels very intimate, as if the Director has gone into themselves, and put it on the screen. With Steven Spielberg, it was E.T. Cameron Crowe had Almost Famous, and George Lucas’ love of cars brought about American Graffiti. Super 8 is most definitely J.J. Abrams’ most intimate film, regarding his love of making movies as a youngster, and his love of the supernatural.
In Super 8, a group of kids in Lillian, Ohio, set out to make a film for a film festival. One evening, their attempts to film a scene takes an unexpected turn when a train derails. As the group continues to try and make their film, the Air Force rolls into town, and strange things begin to happen.
What’s interesting to consider is even though the kids are living in a world where Jaws, Star Wars, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind exist, they are more into the horror/monster-movie aspect of film-love, which surely offputs some who felt that the entire film would turn into a Spielberg tribute of outright love and worship. Even so, there are plenty of little homages that are there if you’re steeped in Amblin productions. For example, they don’t confirm it, but a monologue scene with Elle Fanning’s character of Alice Dainard feels eerily similar in tone and camera movement to one done by Phoebe Cates in Gremlins.
Much like some Amblin productions from yesteryear, the characters in Super 8 all feel very grounded and believable. So believable, that you may find yourself making a connection with some of them. Plus, it’s just great to see kids actually being kids: they argue, they banter, they curse when their parents aren’t around, and one of them is a pyromaniac (when was the last time you saw that in a movie?).
If there’s any place where the film may falter, it’s in the last quarter of the film. There are a couple areas where it feels that J.J. Abrams either wants you to draw your own conclusions, or could be considered to have gotten lazy and wrap up the film before the audience starts to lose interest. Even so, the film was one of the most fun times I had in the summer of 2011, and tapped into a great feeling of movie-going nostalgia that is hard to come by when your summer movie lineup is largely comprised of $200 million sequels.
The Special Features
Previous releases from Abrams’ Bad Robot production company have included Cloverfield and Star Trek (2009), both of which carried a great number of extras and behind-the-scenes material, and that tradition has carried over to the Blu-Ray release of Super 8.
One of the downsides to the Super 8 release, is that like many other releases, you need to have a Blu-Ray player in order to experience the extras. Still own a DVD player? Well, the packed-in non-Blu-Ray DVD that comes with the release package only has the film, along with the ability to download a digital copy of the film. However, there is a regular 1-disc DVD release that includes the filmmaker’s commentary, and 2 of the featurettes.
Unlike some people, I usually enjoy listening to filmmaker’s commentary, especially if they have something interesting to say or discuss. The commentary for Super 8 brings together Abrams, Producer Bryan Burk, and Director of Photography Larry Fong. While there are some self-congratulatory pats on the back, they do point out some interesting little tips and tricks. During the commentary, they even attempt to find a way to get Steven Spielberg in on the commentary. Though if they succeed or not, I’m not telling (hey, it’s a J.J. Abrams film-you need some secrets here and there).
Speaking of the train crash scene, the sequence gets its own extra-feature in Deconstructing the Train Crash. This is the one feature where Abrams throws a great amount of TLC into the mix. Bookended by a script page and the final scene, we get rough storyboards, images of set pre-visualization, physical effects, and even multiple passes of a scene done by special effects company, Industrial Light & Magic.
There’s over 14 deleted scenes included, some that act as added character development or ‘filler.’ A couple of them that concern Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) are good, including one in which he and his friends visit an Army/Navy Store looking for props and costumes, and another in which he and his friend Cary (Ryan Lee) discover a rather chilling-yet-cool site in their explorations.
My main interest in reviewing this release, has been held by the releases’ Featurettes, of which there are 8. These include:
– The Dream Behind Super 8: J.J. Abrams and some of his friends (like Cloverfield Director Matt Reeves, and Director of Photography Larry Fong) discuss their roots as young filmmakers. Steven Spielberg also comes aboard for part of the featurette and discusses a little of his own dabbling in 8mm filmmaking. We also get some snippets of Abrams, Reeves, and Fong’s Super 8 films interspersed within the featurette.
– The Search for New Faces: This chronicles the audition process and casting for many of the young actors in the film. It’s interesting to note that they did a worldwide search for their casting choices. We also see the kids talking about experiencing the late 70’s in the film, and yes, they do find the clothing pretty ridiculous.
– Meet Joel Courtney: Super 8 is Joel Courtney’s first feature film, and the featurette gives insight into who he is, and a day in his life on the set of Super 8.
– Rediscovering Steel Town: This is the one featurette that I applaud Abrams and his team for doing, as something like this would have easily been glossed over by most special feature makers. The town of Weirton, WV, stands in for the fictional town of Lillian, OH, in Super 8. We hear from the filmmakers about choosing Weirton, and also get some insight into the town’s history by its local officials, and one young man raised there named Josh Foglio, who got the chance of a lifetime to be a Production Assistant on the film.
– The Visitor Lives: For those who are intrigued by the creatures/monsters that come out of a film with Abrams’ name attached to it, this will probably be their starting point for Special Features. We get everything from discussions, pre-production artwork, to walk cycles and characterization, including a ‘cameo’ by actor Bruce Greenwood (previously seen as Captain Christopher Pike in Star Trek (2009) ).
– Scoring Super 8: To me, composer Michael Giacchino is the John Williams of the 21st Century. In this feature, we get the chance to see him discuss the themes of the film, as well as how John Williams and Spielberg’s films influenced his home movies, and love of music as a kid. In a couple fun snippets, we see that Giacchino and his friends shot Super 8 movies of themselves pretending to be Elliot and his friends in E.T.
– Do You Believe in Magic: This is more of a ‘fun’ special feature, chronicling the magical might of Director of Photography Larry Fong’s amazing magic skills.
– The 8mm Revolution: This featurette is a love-letter to Super 8 film and cameras. It chronicles the history, and even gives insight that modern-day Super 8 filmmakers can still shoot and process films. However, unlike the old days, you can’t get the film developed at your corner drug store or local camera store.
When DVD’s first started to change the home-viewing experience over a decade ago, I was incredibly excited. Filmmakers talking about their craft, seeing how special effects scenes were deconstructed, hearing insight from the filmmakers moreso than the big-name stars: it was heaven for a person who wanted to know more. However, in 2011, much of that dream has been tarnished due to studios trying to cut corners and grab up as much money as they can get. What once was a smorgasbord of special features has been drastically reduced by some studios. However, it’s nice to see Abrams and his team making the experience of seeing Super 8 an enjoyable one to revisit over and over again. It’s not bursting at the seams like The Lord of the Rings Trilogy: Extended Editions, but it shows that there was an effort made for the fans of the film and J.J. Abrams’ work. Those fascinated by the process will surely enjoy the ride. In a way, it almost feels like Abrams wanted to also inspire today’s up-and-coming filmmakers.
Super 8: The Movie – B+
Super 8: The Blu-Ray – A-