Yes, J.J. Abrams and Steven Spielberg have a small history together. Yes, Super 8 has accurately drawn countless comparisons to Spielberg’s classics from the 1970s and 1980s. Unfortunately, those were never my favorite movies, despite their quality, because story was often shortsighted for all the imaginative spectacle. Isn’t it strange, in the annals of film history, so few filmmakers are well known for making interesting children’s adventures with heart? Give me Stand by Me over this any day.
On first viewing, Super 8 is an exciting, well-crafted science fiction romp featuring sincere children amidst dazzling special effects. Upon second viewing, the film loses most of its superness, and faults are easier to nitpick. With a pre-production cloaked in secrecy and a huge viral marketing campaign, Abrams again proved his mastery at creating anticipatory buzz. But much like that final season of Lost, and many more of his IMDb listings, the finished product stands in the shadow of the hype. I can partially blame the Internet’s inability to ration information without the throat-shoveling. But where my expectations for a truly amazing movie were dashed, my absolute dread for child actors never reared its head.
In a timeless 1979, friends Joe (Joel Courtney) and Charles (Riley Griffiths) are making a Super 8 zombie movie entry for nearby film festival. Charles’ broad vision and unabashed gusto as a director guide his every decision. Joe, meanwhile, keeps himself busy staving off grief over his recently deceased mother, killed in a steel mill accident. Other friends include comic relief Cary (Ryan Lee), nerdy Preston (Zach Mills), and Martin (Gabriel Basso). Or maybe Martin was the nerdy one; these latter two were interchangeable. The last, most reserved member is Alice (Elle Fanning), the unknowing apple of Joe’s eye. This cast exhibits the enjoyable chemistry a group needs to believably take part in an alien conspiracy. Precociousness is gloriously AWOL throughout.
Their lives are (presumably) forever changed during night filming, when the kids witness the deliberate derailing of an Air Force train transporting wickedly precious cargo. As stated everywhere, this train wreck sequence is possibly the best of its kind, on a scale seemingly larger than life, and without constant explosions that plague movies with no taste for realism. Local science teacher Dr. Woodward (Glynn Turman) is behind the derailment, his cryptic final words establishing the film’s mystery. Everything spirals out of control as the unapologetic military, led by Col. Nelec (Noah Emmerich), shuts the town down, dismissing reason and lacking personality. Super 8 now travels the path of predictability and far-fetchedness, as these kids task themselves to save the day. Luckily, the mysterious vibe cements itself before fading away entirely, as the town becomes victim to unexplainable disappearances and anomalous behavior from all things magnetic.
This is a film filled with adults more at home in the 1950s. Many are incidental and enjoyable enough, but the two main leads are the most problematic. Joe’s angrily grieving father, Jackson (Kyle Chandler), is three years and a case of vodka away from becoming a Lifetime Original villain. He chooses his policeman job over fatherly duties, never the friendly nurturer his wife was. He and Joe aren’t on the same page, or even in the same library. Part of their divide lies in Joe’s grudge against Alice’s father, Louis (Ron Eldard), whose drunken sick day at the mill led to Joe’s wife dying in the accident. These men take their angst for each other out on their children in unimaginative ways. To say something positive, Eldard very much appears to be a Northern Redneck, while Chandler just looks like a guy in a cop costume.
Without the spoon-fed schmarmy feel-goodness and hideously designed CGI monster, Super 8 still wouldn’t be as good as Attack the Block, but it wouldn’t feel like such a bloated-budget After School Special. Credit where credit is due for not exploiting a child’s mourning. I felt genuine sympathy for Joe’s need to fill his life’s feminine void, as well as Charles’ need for imagination to replace generic home life. I even enjoyed David Gallagher’s “one joint and I’m comatose” Donny the stoner, for his brief comic relief. Many of these quality details are cloaked in “family adventure,” though, so while the final sum isn’t a train wreck, it’s also not as fun to watch.
The Blu-ray/DVD combo for Super 8 is far more entertaining than the movie by itself, which seems obvious, but isn’t the case for all films. The gorgeous visuals and commanding audio look and sound as good as anything I can imagine, the train derailment as a clear stand-out. Michael Giacchino’s orchestral score is consistently moving and powerful, even if it is occasionally coaxing.
Abrams, producer Bryan Burk, and cinematographer Larry Fong come together for an entertaining commentary rife with technical factoids about video cameras through the years, scene production, and special effects. Yes, they talk about Spielberg.
The high-def featurettes are numerous and informative without overstaying their welcome. Abrams discusses his childhood love of film leading to Super 8’s central concept. The relatively unknown cast gets showcased, with Joel Courtney getting his own extended extra. They’re a fun bunch. “Rediscovering Steel Town” delves into the location and story behind the city. Giacchino gets a few minutes to discuss his background and film contributions. The influence of 8mm home movies is covered. Finally, Larry Fong wows the cast and crew with his adept skills as a magician. Then there are 14 deleted scenes. Most are subtle character moments or scene extensions, and none caused me to rue their deletion, though Joe’s script contributions and home movie-watching probably should have been included.
“Deconstructing the Train Crash” is a convoluted and frustrating batch of features that lay out the pre-production, production, and post-production on an interconnecting train line grid. The numerous extras (including interviews, on-set clips, script pages, pictures, CGI mock-ups, and even J.J. Abrams watching an explosion) are all worth your time, though the set-up is awful and error-prone, making one wish for a simple up-and-down list of clickables. Aesthetic isn’t everything, guys.
Super 8 becomes more effective when combined with the disc’s special features, which in this case speaks negatively toward the feature itself. That said, there’s something for almost everyone to enjoy, and it really does deserve to be seen at least once. All right, only once. Then go back and watch the train crash repeatedly.