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Featured Blu-ray / DVD Review: Super 8

November 22nd, 2011

Super 8 - Buy from Amazon: DVD or Blu-ray Combo Pack

Super 8 was written and directed by J.J. Abrams and produced by Steven Spielberg. It has hit written all over it. While it wasn't one of the biggest hits of the summer in terms of raw dollars, it certainly got a lot of box office bang out of its relatively modest $50 million production budget. But now that it is out on the home market, will it find further success?

The Movie

The film begins in 1979 in a small town named Lillian, which is recovering from a tragedy at the steel mill, which took the life of Joe Lamb's mother and the 14-year old is taking it quite hard. His dad, Jack, is also having trouble coping, which is made obvious when he arrests Louis Dainard at the funeral, when the latter arrives to pay his respects.

We flash forward four months and it's the beginning of summer. Joe and Charles Kaznyk and a few other of their friends have been working on a zombie movie on super 8 that they want to enter in a film festival for kids. Charles has been trying to work on the film to give it a better story, which is why he's asked Alice Dainard to act in the movie playing the wife of the main character. Joe's impressed that Charles would talk to her. They are going to film that night at the old railway station and Alice is going to drive them there, despite the fact that she's also only 14 years old. (She's not happy to see Joe there, since his father's the deputy and she's not allowed to drive.) The shoot starts out okay with the usual problems involving last minute line changes, one of the crew is obsessed with fireworks, etc. The usual things. The filming begins for real as the train nears the station. (Charles wanted it in the shot to make his film seem bigger.) But as they film, Joe notices a truck driving along the track. He's able to warn his friends just in time for them to see the impact and run away from the ensuing derailment.

After the collision, they find the area littered with strange metal cubes. They also find the truck that was hit and learn it was Dr. Woodward, the high school biology teacher, who caused the accident. He survived, barely, but warns the kids not to tell anyone what they saw, because if they do, they will die. Their parents will die. To emphasize the serious nature of the danger, he waves a gun at them and tells them to run, just before the military shows up.

The next day they decide to go back to filming. They could use the train crash as a backdrop. This is when Joe notices it was an Air Force train and the group begins to wonder what kind of conspiracy is going on here. Jack thinks the same thing after visiting the site and getting the run around from the military. That's just the beginning of the strange events that keep happening in town. The power starts to fluctuate. All the dogs run away. Microwaves are stolen from stores. Engineers are ripped out of cars. People go missing, including Sheriff Pruitt. While Jack tries to get answers from Colonel Nelec, the kids just try to get their movie done. That changes when...

That's too deep into spoiler territory, although there might be a sense of familiarity with the plot that would lessen the impact of spoilers. It is true that the plot of the film does borrow from the best of monster movies, but that's okay, as the movie is supposed to be a loving homage to classic films in the genre with elements of The Goonies, Stand By Me, etc. It's strength comes from the writer having a strong understanding of what makes those movies work, plus an excellent cast of young actors to carry much of the emotional weight of the film.

The script balances the coming of age story with the monster elements, with the latter being introduced quite slowly at first. (Although that doesn't mean there's no action. That train crash certainly qualifies as action.) Not only does this help build suspense till the hectic finale, but it also lays a strong emotional foundation for the characters. Joe dealing with the death of his mother and an emotionally distant father. Young love between Alice and Joe. The friendship between Charles and Joe. Even without the alien, there's more than enough here to carry a movie.

That's not to say the alien is the weakest part of the film. (I think the weakest part is the ending, when the film tries a little to hard to be emotional with Joe letting go of the locket. The music was too much, the symbolism was ham-fisted, etc.) There was enough interesting and new with the Alien Ship Crashed on Earth mythology that audiences should be engaged with the mystery. The finale is filled with explosions and action, but it doesn't overshadow the characters.

I've reviewed eight of this year's crop of summer blockbusters, so far, and while there have been a couple duds, most have been worth picking up. Bridesmaids is arguably the best of the bunch that I've reviewed, but Super 8 is a close second.

The Extras

The DVD has an audio commentary with J.J. Abrams, the writer / director; Larry Fong, the cinematographer; and Bryan Burk, one of the producers. I like how they start out mentioning how Steven Spielberg doesn't do audio commentary tracks. It's a good track with enough technical details to fill it up, but I would have like to have heard some of the young cast talk. A second audio commentary track would have been good. There are also two featurettes, The Visitor Lives and The Dream Behind Super 8.

The Blu-ray has all those two featurettes, plus several others, under the Featurettes section. They discuss the origins of the story, casting, filming, locations, the music, etc. It runs nearly 100 minutes long and it is very thorough. Next up is an interactive featurette on the big train crash with interviews, behind-the-scenes, etc. It's not as interactive as it could be, however. There are 13 minutes of deleted scenes. Finally, the disc is BD-Live enabled, but there's nothing exclusive here.

As for the film's technical presentations, they are almost flawless. The level of detail is incredibly high, the colors pop, the night scenes feature amazingly deep blacks that never swallow details. You won't find print damage, grain, compression artifacts, etc. You will find way too many lens flares, but that's the fault of J.J. Abrams's weird obsession with them and not the fault of the transfer. The audio is equally impressive with good separation, ambient sounds, directional effects and a booming bass. No complaints here.

The Blu-ray only costs 18% more than the DVD and it comes with the DVD. Clearly it's the better deal.

The Verdict

Simply put, Super 8 is Pick of the Week material. The DVD has enough extras to be worth picking up, while the Blu-ray Combo Pack is loaded. It audio and video quality would have been enough to make the Blu-ray worth paying extra for, but there's more than an hour of additional extras.

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Filed under: Video Review, Super 8