Welcome to Fistful of Features, a celebration of film preservation through physical media and the discussion of cinematic treasures to maintain their relevance in the cultural lexicon. Let’s now take a look at the 10th anniversary of an uneven but ultimately satisfying love letter to youthful inspiration and the magic of filmmaking, J.J. Abrams’s Super 8.
As Michael Giacchino’s stirring medley chimes along the opening frame, Larry Fong’s gentle lens rests slightly above the factory floor of the Lillian Steel Corporation in Lillian, Ohio, towards the end of “Me Decade.” Editors Maryon Brandon and Mary Jo Markey swiftly cut a series of tragic scenes that would underline a noble show-not-tell approach that director J. J. Abrams is clearly utilizing.
There’re two distinct approaches to visual storytelling at odds in Super 8 and it’s not until the heartwarming night scene at the train station that the lesser approach rears its ugly head. In the wake of a boy losing his mother to a horrible accident, he soon finds the comfort of fantastical escapism and finds the prospect of creating Super 8 magic with his friends quite soothing. An understandably fragile Joe (Joel Courtney) is assisting his aspiring filmmaker friend Charles (Riley Griffiths) amongst Gary’s (Ryan Lee) pyrotechnic distractions and Preston’s (Zach Mills) eager chance to shine through as their extra. Charles encourages a rehearsal between his leads Martin (Gabriel Bosso) and Alice (Elle Fanning) and the exuberant young actress delivers her lines with the wisdom and heart of an old soul that leaves the cast breathless. A speeding train is on-course and they all scramble to take advantage of the potential “free production value.” As the train collides, sadly, so does the good will of this film. Up until this moment, Abrams had taken a heartfelt and honest approach to Super 8 that didn’t condescend or insult our intelligence in any way, shape or form … and then the MacGuffin escapes.
This is the point in the film where Abrams had to make a choice: to continue the focus on the characters and allow his audience to develop natural empathy on their own or discredit our intellect and the goodwill he’s rightfully earned up to this moment. Sadly, evidence shows he went with the latter and went with manipulation instead of sincerity, mostly due to the fear that our attention couldn’t be sustained without monster chases and clichéd global conspiracies assaulting our senses for the remainder of the picture.
The career path of Abrams has always appeared to be an anomaly. Getting his start writing lackluster films that always played it safe, like Forever Young and Regarding Henry, Abrams then carved a niche for himself amongst the revolutionary shift of television with groundbreaking series such as Alias and Lost. On the cusp of that success, he wrote a screenplay for an under-appreciated thriller, Joy Ride, that showed Abrams was more than capable of taking risks and pushing boundaries in feature films. If Abrams had that boldness and courageousness while filming Super 8, we would have gotten more development with the tragic circumstances of Joe and his father’s (Kyle Chandler) relationship instead of getting it swept under the rug for a desperate aim-to-please approach that ultimately sacrifices everything Abrams has built up to, and completely misses the mark on everything that came natural to his producer and mentor Steven Spielberg.
So many tender moments in this film come from the tender blossoming friendship between Joe and Alice. Elle Fanning, at 12 years old, hot off the heels of her extraordinary performance in Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere, has the grace and maturity of a seasoned Meryl Streep. There’s a tender scene where she’s sitting in Joe’s room with her tearful eyes aimed at the projected wall of his deceased mother and she’s racking herself over the coals with the guilt of her father that she accepts as her own. It’s a powerful moment that lingers strongly before becoming a mere afterthought to the underdeveloped action sequences as the wasted talent of Bruce Greenwood lends his uninspired motion capture to an underwhelming CGI creature.
Some of these same issues could be addressed at Abrams’s entry in the Mission: Impossible franchise beforehand. When he allows the quieter moments to rack up tension and emotion with the talented heights of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman at his disposable, it’s like we’re seeing a completely different beast than what proceeded it, and then it discredits the attention spans of an action movie audience and ruthlessly attempts to pummel them into submission without any proper discourse. Restraint over indulgence is clearly Abrams’s strength and it’s unfortunate when he gives in to the latter. Even Mr. Spielberg would admit that pleasing the audience is circumstantial and no film worth anything exists without taking risks.
The human elements in Super 8 are so strong that, even though they end up taking a backseat to the panicky filmmaking approach that steers us towards the climax, they still manage to help the film coast to a satisfying conclusion solely based on the good will that enveloped the audience early on. If Abrams ever retreats from the world of assembly line franchise filmmaking, it would be wonderful for him to take a glance at Super 8 and push himself further and focus on things that challenge him rather than taking the cynical crowd-pleasing approach. Give your audience the benefit of the doubt and they’ll surely return the favor.
Paramount has delivered a beautiful restoration in 4K UHD that magnifies the beauty and disjointed chaos that Super 8 has on display.
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.