JJ Abrams—the mastermind of such mint television shows as LOST, Alias, and sci-fi geek favorite Fringe—has earned the bulk of his following through work on television, but over the past half-decade, the dude’s also been involved with some pretty mint films, as well: Mission: Impossible 3 (which many consider the most mint of the Mission: Impossible films), Cloverfield (which Abrams didn’t direct, but had a strong hand in), and—most recently—this summer’s Super 8, the mint story of six amateur-filmmaker kids caught up in a mysterious alien-coverup in Smalltown, America. The film earned just as many fans as it did detractors when it debuted a few months ago, and I was curious to find out if the film played better (or worse) at home. Keep on reading to find out what I learned from the Super 8 Blu-ray, after the jump.
If you’re wondering why I used the word “mint” eighteen bajillion times in the intro to this review, you’ll probably also wonder why the term pops up repeatedly over the course of about five minutes—and then never again—in JJ Abrams’ Super 8. It’s one of a half-dozen odd quirks on display in Abrams’ latest big-budget studio tentpole, and precisely the sort of thing that you can probably gauge your appreciation for Super 8 by: if simply reading about that little idiosyncrasy gets under your skin, there’s probably no way you’re going to enjoy Super 8. If, however, you’re willing to let it roll off your back (along with Abrams’ frequently heavy-handed homages, on-the-nose musical cues, and enduring love for lens flares), there might just be enough here to keep you entertained.
For me, Super 8 played better the first time I saw it than it did the second. Once again, this feels like an Abrams project harmed by the director’s borderline-manic need to keep everything about that project secret, a business practice that only serves to foster unfair expectations from the internet-reading masses. I understand why Abrams treats each new release like a massive government cover-up—he wants to surprise you when the film unspools in the theater—but time and again we’ve seen this frantic secrecy bite him in the ass.
It’s obvious that Abrams takes this particular cue from one of his idols, Steven Spielberg. But even though I’m sure he puts together these elaborate ARG promotional stunts and maintains top-level security around his projects for honorable reasons, the sad fact is this: JJ Abrams is no Steven Spielberg. He’s a fine filmmaker in his own right, to be sure, but there’s a difference between keeping things secret and releasing Jurassic Park on an intrigued audience…and keeping things secret and releasing Super 8 (to spell it out: one of those films has a satisfying payoff).
Though the previous two paragraphs might not make it sound like it, I actually consider myself a fan of Abrams’ work. Moreover, I consider myself a fan of the ideas and the tone inherent in each new Abrams project, not to mention the spirit in which they’re made: even when he doesn’t deliver, you can often see what he was getting at, and sometimes—when you factor in all of Abrams’ other strengths—that’s enough. This time, it wasn’t, but that doesn’t mean that Super 8 is a complete failure. It’s not even a “mostly” failure. It’s just…somewhat off.
It starts at the story level. With Super 8, Abrams made no secret of the fact that he mashed together two ideas he’d been toying with (“Kids Making Super 8 Movies in Their Backyards in the Amblin’ 80’s” meets “Alien Cover-up Hits Small Town”), and I like the idea of both of those movies in theory. Furthermore, I like the idea of both of those ideas being combined in theory. But the final product feels awkward in its mashed-togetherness, especially during the film’s final act, when emotional beats from the first act are supposed to be paying off left and right. There’s a shot near the end where an object that’s been toted around by one of the kids throughout the film plays a central role in a very important moment, and it’s supposed to be heartbreaking, hopeful, and about seven other things. But it just…isn’t, and it’s largely because Abrams simply didn’t find a way to make these two ideas co-exist smoothly.
The problems are exacerbated by the design of the alien at the center of the film, but it’s worth noting that the issues I have with Super 8’s creature aren’t limited to Super 8: it’s an issue I’ve had with every major “monster movie” Hollywood’s released lately. For some reason, directors and production designers have gotten it into their heads that—when it comes to monsters– what we really want is big, slobbery, amorphous blobs of pixels with six arms. Creatures like those featured in Cowboys and Aliens, Cloverfield, and yes, Super 8 all look the same to me, which is to say: boring. When I was a kid, I’d watch Aliens or Predator or the old Universal monster movies and I’d sit in class doodling pictures of these creatures in the margins of my homework. I loved those monsters, and most of that love sprung from their iconic designs. The designs used for Super 8 (and its ilk) are the farthest thing from “iconic” I can imagine: I couldn’t sit and draw one of those creatures with a gun to my head, mainly because they’re so uninteresting that I immediately forget what they look like. It’s a damn shame, and kind of bewildering once you realize that Abrams and Matt Reeves and Jon Favreau (who made the previously-mentioned films) all grew up with—and loved—the same monster movies I did. What gives?
But like I said, Super 8 isn’t a complete trainwreck. There’s a lot to savor here, not the least of which is the performance from the largely-unknown cast of kids. In one of many homages to the Amblin’ films of the 80’s, Abrams has the kids talk over one another, use bad words, and behave like real kids, just like the ones we saw in E.T. and The Goonies. That’s refreshing, and some of the kids—particularly Elle Fanning, as the “love interest/damsel-in-distress”—are really great finds. The film also looks like one of those Amblin’ films, with characters staring off-screen at things in abject awe and sweeping crowd shots that really do recreate the Spielberg aesthetic. Judging the film on a purely “Did he make it look correct?” level, Abrams nailed it.
Abrams also works in some great musical cues, though I wish they were a little more obscure (I don’t care if I ever hear characters in a piece of entertainment sing “My Sharona” ever again). Another thing I enjoyed: the film’s pacing, and the film’s opening sequence (which contains a great opening shot, by the way). There are little things like these scattered throughout Super 8 that I really, really like. Unfortunately, the problems I have with the film overwhelm the smaller things that I enjoy, and—by the end of my second viewing of the film—I knew that it’d be a long, long time before I bothered sitting down to watch Super 8 again.
For those curious to know, the Blu-ray does feature a fair amount of extras. Here’s what you’re gonna get: a featurette dealing with the massive trainwreck at the end of the film’s first act called “Deconstructing The Train Crash”, a slew of less-intensive featurettes (including ones dedicated to casting, the origins of the film, the creature, and so on), 14 deleted scenes (none of which really blew my skirt up), and a commentary featuring Abrams (which is, in the great tradition of Abrams commentaries, definitely worth listening to; too many directors don’t know how to pull off a commentary well, and Abrams isn’t one of them). Also par for the course for an Abrams release: the picture quality (1080p, it goes without saying) and audio are outstanding. This Blu-ray looks ten times better than the print of the film I saw in theaters, though the clarity does draw attention to Abrams’ bordering-on-self-parody overusage of lens flares.
Look, if you’re an Abrams fan, I’d say, “Check out Super 8”. You’re going to want to keep up with the dude’s work, and there are plenty of worse movies you could see this year. But if you’re one of those people who’s spent years ranting and raving about the various things JJ Abrams sucks online, you shouldn’t bother: there’s nothing in Super 8 that’ll change your opinion of the guy. For everyone else—those of you who don’t feel one way or another about Abrams’ work—I’d suggest renting this one before you buy. There’s simply too much about Super 8 that doesn’t work for me to toss out a universal recommendation (but also enough that does to prevent me from calling the film a wash).
My grade? C+