Writer/director J.J. Abrams is one of the more controversial directors working today. Not “where are the feet?” controversial like Tarantino or “why always so serious?” controversial like Nolan, but in a polarizing love-or-hate way. Abrams is credited by many for revitalizing both Mission: Impossible and Star Trek franchises, reinvigorating both so much that stories from each continue to build off of his ideas. You can see plainly in 2018’s Mission: Impossible – Fallout, the sixth entry in the series, how it continues a narrative thread begun in Abrams’s M:I 3. Then, of course, there’s the Star Wars situation which is entirely lose-lose. Abrams returned the Force to theaters in 2015’s The Force Awakens and concluded The Skywalker Saga with 2019’s The Rise of Skywalker, both accused (for good and bad) of trying too hard to placate the masses instead of focusing on the characters. He’s done so much franchise work that it’s sometimes difficult to separate Abrams from his own projects, which brings us to the 2011 sci-fi action thriller Super 8, written and directed by Abrams, now receiving the 4K UHD treatment from Paramount almost 10 years exactly after its theatrical release. Super 8 is entirely Abrams as he draws from the storytellers who inspired him and he brings with him all the good and bad that he brings to everything else, making this a film you either love or dislike with little in between.
Four months after suffering the sudden loss of his mother, Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) and his father Jackson (Kyle Chandler) are adrift separately, doing whatever they can to get by. For Jackson, that means digging even further into his work as a deputy in the sheriff’s department, while for Joe, it means working with his friends to make movies. One night during a midnight shoot capturing a scene for their zombie movie at the train station, the lives of everyone in their town are unexpectedly turned upside down as a passing train derails right in front of them, unleashing something the U.S. Air Force wants to keep hidden. With lives on the line and some kind of alien threat looming large on the periphery, the Summer of 1979 becomes one not a single resident of Lillian, Ohio, will ever forget.
While I’ve gone on the record with my fondness for some of Abrams’s projects, Super 8 is one that I’ve always had a hard time wrapping my head around. Even if the film weren’t co-produced with Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment, there’s no denying the director’s influence on Abrams or this project. It’s equal parts family drama and science fiction like 1982’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and 2005’s War of the Worlds, with a ferocity of 1975’s Jaws thrown in for good measure. Though not directed by Spielberg, Amblin *did* produce 1985’s The Goonies, so mentioning that child-perspective action adventure tale within the same breath as Super 8 is allowed within the realm of Spielbergian influence. Here’s the thing, though, being an homage isn’t enough, the balance has to be right and it’s not there at all. Even with 10 years’ time between my first theatrical watch and the 4K UHD release to consider Abrams’s intent, even with a greater understanding of Abrams as a director (his perspective, his visual tastes, etc.), even with being able to pinpoint the homages within the narrative beats, affection doesn’t come for this project simply because balance is absent. Not to mention that the film itself seems unsure if it’s going to be a relatively safe (for PG-13, anyway) child adventure (akin to The Goonies) or something more terrifying (akin to War of the Worlds). The familial drama works well within the narrative, sure, enabling Joe and Jackson to process their grief separately yet bring them together, while also allowing tangential elements like a family feud/star-crossed teen romance worm its way through. The trouble comes with the violence connected to the science fiction elements, particularly in their depiction, whether in the heighted violence (the kids’ neighborhood turns into a literal war zone with one sustaining a leg injury so egregious a bone pops out) or the torturous backstory for the alien itself (the military literally tortured the being for over 10 years). These are complicated concepts which, while interesting on their own, feel out of place with the softer elements.
It certainly doesn’t help matters that Abrams’s quite violent Cloverfield came out in 2008 and the creature looks an awful lot like it belongs within the same lineage of that creature. Evidently, the creature designs only look similar because Neville Page is the architect of both and are not in the same universe. It also doesn’t help matters that the film primarily takes place at night, making the CG alien difficult to see until it’s given a proper close-up toward the end of the film. For some reason, without a good look at the otherworldly entity until so late in the film, I find it harder to be terrified. It’s not that I need to see Bruce in order to be scared in Jaws, it’s that I can picture the thing in my mind during each attack. The inability to do the same here reduces moments that should be horrifying into the realm of apathy. Reportedly, Abrams had two different ideas for a film, one focused on kids making a movie and the other an alien picture, which he combined to create Super 8. For my money, the familial story is far more compelling than the alien one, even more so considering how out of balance the disparate tones of each concept come to be in the final product.
So let’s talk remastering, shall we?
According to the press materials, Super 8 is given the 4K UHD treatment, along with a new English 7.1 Dolby TrueHD audio mix. The HDR works wonders, offering a more realistic presentation of each frame. Considering the visual styling is similar, there are times when the film really does look like it was shot around the Jaws/E.T. period. This is a great benefit in the brighter sequences, but the HDR hampers the darker ones. Why? Because it does its job so well, the night time sequences can make it more difficult to discern one thing from another. Basically, if you thought it was hard to track the alien before, it’s harder now. In the sequence where the audience finally comes face-to-face with the creature, we can only really get a sense of its facial geography when the creature places its face almost straight up to Joe, but anything in the shadows is even harder to process. HDR is heralded for enhancing visual elements into something more authentic to the lived-experience, which means that sometimes comes with the same issues of what it’s like to see something at night: you’re not gonna. Another strange issue is the audio, though that might have more to do with the original home viewing mix than the remaster. The dialogue is considerably more quiet than the action, requiring constant adjustment between 25 dB during dialogue-heavy sequences and 45 dB during action sequences. Admittedly I did have a sleeping baby on my chest during the viewing and was trying not to wake him after startling the poor child during the train derailment scene, but I would’ve had to adjust the volume consistently without the infant simply because of the drastic shift in volume. I even pulled myself close to the center speaker in my 5.1 set-up out of concern that the dialogue wasn’t presenting properly. This isn’t a typical issue with 4K UHD remasters, making Super 8 a clear outlier. Regarding special features, there are over two hours of materials to peruse on the 4K disc, but be advised that they are all previously available materials. Thus, you have to really want this on 4K in order to justify the upgrade.
In a weird way, my appreciation for Super 8 might grow if it were connected to the Cloverfield universe, if only because it would offer a certain amount of purposefulness to the apparent victimhood humanity is in against the attacks. Having the unearthly aggressions stem from our own violence to an extra-terrestrial would bring about some weight to those films that doesn’t really exist beyond “aliens bad, humans good.” It’s not connected and that’s ultimately fine. Super 8 is under no obligation to meet my desires and it is, by its own merits, a decent one-off tale. My lack of appreciation for it largely stems from the imbalance between the two narratives, even though the themes of grief and rage do intersect nicely. That, in combination with the HDR making the film harder to perceive in the predominately night time film, make this a home release that is difficult to recommend. However, if you’re on the other side, where you feel the balance is struck well or are enamored with the homages within, picking up Super 8 is not a purchase you’ll regret.
Super 8 4K UHD Special Features
- Feature film in 4K Ultra HD
- Commentary by J.J. Abrams, Bryan Burk, and Larry Fong
- The Dream Behind Super 8 (HD)
- The Search for New Faces (HD)
- Meet Joel Courtney (HD)
- Rediscovering Steel Town (HD)
- The Visitor Lives (HD)
- Scoring Super 8 (HD)
- Do You Believe in Magic? (HD)
- The 8mm Revolution (HD)
- Easter Eggs (HD)
- Deconstructing the Train Crash (HD)
- Deleted Scenes (HD)
Available on 4K UHD Blu-ray and digital May 25th, 2021.
For more information, head to Paramount’s Super 8 website.