Nostalgia is both an enemy and a comrade in J.J. Abrams's Super 8, a film that was characterized by several critics as a project rigidly indebted to producer Steven Spielberg's family-friendly '80s films. Fair is fair: It's certainly hard not to take a look at the bright-eyed, energetic youths that go adventuring after an alien visitor in the film, let alone the Amblin Entertainment logo, and not think of that lovable M&M-eating extra-terrestrial or the agreeably ambiguous visitors of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. That being said, the similarities between Abrams's film and those early works of his presumed mentor were brought up less to highlight the immense talent Abrams has for spectacle filmmaking and more to dismiss his inventiveness as contrived and, even more wrong-headedly, to dismiss Super 8 as a diluted re-up of Spielbergian spirit.
On the contrary, Super 8 is by every measure a superior film to E.T. and arguably a more curious, multifaceted work than Close Encounters of the Third Kind. And whereas Spielberg's films offered little more than grossly oversentimental entertainments with little in the way of personal weight and nuance, Abrams's latest is clearly the work of an individual artist who imbues nearly every frame with fascination, whether it be for death, invention, influence, artistic process, destruction, or genuine discovery.
Abrams's preternatural ability as a visual storyteller is evident from the first shot: the resetting of a "Days Since Our Last Accident" board back to one, immediately announcing that not only are loss, grief, and death ideas that Abrams is wholly willing to confront, but that they are major themes in Super 8, as they were in Abrams's exceptional Star Trek. In this case, the loss is that of a devoted wife and mother due to a factory accident, leaving her son, 14-year-old Joe (Joel Courtney), in the hands of her distraught deputy husband, Jack (Kyle Chandler). The few details we get about the accident suggest a gruesome end, which is at least partially blamed on her co-worker, Louis (Ron Eldard), who was too drunk to show up to work that day, leaving Joe's mom to pick up his shift.
A few months pass and summer is on the horizon, which Joe imagines will be full of long, blissful days with his best friend, Charles (Riley Griffiths), a horror-obsessed amateur filmmaker, and their pack of buddies, including pyromaniac Cary (Ryan Lee) and nerdy Martin (Gabriel Basso). Charles is knee-deep into production on his latest Romero-indebted flick, The Case, and has just scored a leading lady in the guise of Alice Dainard (Elle Fanning), Louis's daughter, whom both Charles and Joe harbor crushes for. But their guerilla night shoot at an abandoned train station is literally blown when a truck derails a secret military train, causing tremendous wreckage and releasing a cumbersome alien "visitor" (Bruce Greenwood via some mo-cap work) who goes about causing damage and mass hysteria in the small town of Lillian, Ohio.
Dogs go missing, as do several key people, and all manner of electrical and metal mechanisms go on the fritz or go missing as well, but it's worth noting that the violence that happens in Super 8 comes largely from manmade weapons and men in general. The alien's presence causes tank cannons, guns, and bombs to go off without warning in the film's wonderfully chaotic final quarter, and the visitor is seen eating and killing two or three people, but the duplicitous government-paid villain of the film (Noah Emmerich) orders the murder of at least one person beforehand and later quarantines Jack in the name of secrecy. In this, Super 8 succeeds beautifully in visually illustrating the violently hysterical societal reaction to the Other: when we panic, so do our weapons and machines, and that's where true bedlam lies.
Above even the ultimate eruption of the industrial revolution, Super 8 is a film concerned with discovery as a means of conquering death. Yes, Fanning and talented newbie Courtney's first-love machinations are particularly effective despite the rote core of the relationship, but it's the making of The Case that offers the most rewarding moments of the film and the key to Abrams's film. Joe, Charles, Cary, and Martin mirror several sides of a young Abrams, obsessed with creation as much as destruction, but they all also speak to the passion of the adult filmmaker Abrams to create tremendous sets and incredible models, both physically and digitally, only to destroy them in a blaze of crunching, crashing metal and fire. Indeed, The Case, a film about dead people coming back to life, allows Joe a chance to work through his grief, as much as the antics surround the visitor give him an adventure, a form of escape from that grief. It's only fitting then that the only image we get of Joe's late mother is on film, projected against the boy's bedroom wall in the twilight, with the only other girl he's really cared about sitting beside him.
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Per usual, Paramount has handled a new title with utmost attention and the resulting 1080p transfer of Super 8 is stunning on every level. Colors are big and bold, and the palette overall is impressively balanced. Clarity is excellent throughout, allowing for a consistently astounding level of detail, and great rendering of textures and facial tones. Black levels are perfect, deep and inky, and the sense of depth is continuously astounding. I would go on, but it's easier to say that the visual transfer lacks for nothing, and neither does the audio. The handling of the train derailment is the sort of show-off scene that you dream of and the detailing by the TrueHD 7.1 lossless soundtrack does a superb job both in that scene and throughout the rest of the film. The mix, which includes heavy sound effects, non-diagetic rock n' roll, diagetic noise, and Michael Giacchino's superb score, is brilliantly balanced with dialogue out front, crisp and clean. But this transfer earns its stripes when it handles bigger scenes with no dialogue, such as the train derailment and the boys running through a suburban war zone after the visitor attacks their bus. Releases like this are what Blu-ray technology was invented for.
This is a largely enjoyable smattering of extras, beginning with the commentary by J.J. Abrams, Bryan Burk, and Larry Fong. It's a very nice commentary, going over casting, working with the kids, the production of the film, Spielberg's influence, and the special effects, among other things, with energy and insight. The eight featurettes are a mixed bag, as is to be expected, but none of them were particularly boring and it's nice to see the great composer Michael Giacchino get specific attention. That being said, I could have done without the short by cinematographer Larry Fong and the overlong look at star Joel Courtney. The deleted scenes are fun and there's an argument that some of the scenes could have made it into the final product. Overall, the disc offers a solid enough assembly of odds and ends. Digital and DVD copies of the film and an interactive "Deconstructing the Train Crash" feature are also included.
The Blu-ray release of J.J. Abrams's Super 8 looks and sounds spectacular, but also allows this striking film a second chance to prove that it actually transcends the Spielberg template that it's been criticized for mimicking.