Review: Super 8
I’m a big fan of J.J. Abrams. And, with all respect to Dennis Burger, I don’t care if he is only “one-tenth the filmmaker James Gunn,” if Abrams’ name is attached to a movie or TV series, my curiosity is instantly piqued. For me, he has earned that level of interest from being involved as either writer, director, or executive producer on projects like Lost, Alias, 11.22.63, Star Trek, Cloverfield, and even the much-maligned Star Wars sequels.
My 14-year-old daughter Lauryn is now at an age now where my wife and I are able to go back and rewatch favorite movies with her. Not only are many of these films getting freshly released with 4K HDR upgrades, and we also have a home theater
system that far exceeds what we had years ago, but we also get a chance to experience these movies as new through her eyes. This also offers a great reality gut-check as to whether a film still holds up and isn’t just something I remember as great tinted through years of a nostalgia-filtered lens.
One of the rewatches we’ve started on is Lost. We’re mostly through Season 3 (we take in just an episode per night), and I had forgotten how great the first two seasons were, and it is fantastic to watch as Lauryn follows all the plot twists and reveals. She has also gotten into Netflix’s Stranger Things, consuming the first three seasons to get ready for the 2022 release of Season 4. All of which made this a perfect time for us to watch the 10th-anniversary 4K HDR release of Super 8.
Super 8 isn’t Abrams’ big-screen directorial debut (that honor goes to Mission: Impossible III in 2006, followed by
SUPER 8 AT A GLANCE
J.J. Abrams’ aliens-lurking-in-a-small-town Spielberg homage gets the 4K treatment for its 10th anniversary.
Because the release was created from a 2K DI, images look clean and mostly sharp but don’t have the reference quality of a true 4K film transfer.
The train crash remains an audio tour de force, with powerful output that will put your speaker system to the test, and makes for a fantastic demo scene.
the Star Trek reboot in 2009) but it is the first film where he took on the hat-trick of directing, writing, and producing. It also finds him teamed with Steven Spielberg, who served as a co-producer.
This seems the perfect storytelling partnership for this film, with both filmmakers having similar philosophies on maintaining suspense and holding back the big reveal, as well as working with the supernatural. In a way, this felt to me a bit like Spielberg if not maybe passing the torch at least acknowledging Abrams as the next big up-and-comer.
Rewatching Super 8 this time, I think I was more aware of just how much it borrows from other films. There are so many elements here that seem to ring similar from The Goonies (kids on an adventure), Jaws (the mostly unseen monster that terrorizes the small town), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (the government trying to cover up the aliens’ visit), E.T. (the misunderstood alien visitor), and Jurassic Park (the attacking monsters).
And guess which person with the initials “S.S.” was also attached to all of those films? But if you’re going to borrow from other movies, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better batch to lean on. It’s also clear how much later shows like Stranger Things borrowed from this, as well as The Loser’s Club and how they interact and relate to each other from It.
The other thing Super 8 does smartly is to cast actual kids who were mostly unknowns. It’s far easier to immerse yourself in the story when you aren’t associating someone with another role, and the leads all do a solid job. But you can tell the young actors are all outclassed by a young Elle Fanning, who just outperforms them in every scene. It reminded me of the time I got to watch Jason Kidd play basketball while at Cal Berkeley, where he just looked like a man-amongst-boys, showcasing talents unmatched on the court.
The film takes place in 1979, and opens after a workplace accident kills Elizabeth, wife of Deputy Sheriff Lamb (Kyle Chandler) and mother of Joe (Joel Courtney). We jump ahead four months, and aspiring young filmmaker Charles (Riley Griffiths) is working on a zombie film—“The Case”—for a film competition, and he enlists the help of his friend Joe, along with Preston (Zach Mills) and pyro-obsessed Cary (Ryan Lee). Charles also enlists Alice (Fanning) to act in his film, creating a bit of a love-triangle between himself and Joe. While shooting a scene, the kids witness an epic train wreck and Joe picks up a mysterious cube that flew out of one of the cars. After developing the film days later, they discover they filmed what looks like an alien escaping a derailed train car. After some strange things start happening in the town—issues with the electrical grid, engines disappearing from cars, pets going missing—and the Air Force moves in to lock things down and clean up the wreck, the kids decide to investigate and figure out just what is going on.
Not too surprising considering the Abrams/Spielberg connection, Super 8 was filmed on film, including 35, 16, and 8mm, using a variety of cameras. The press release lists this as being “newly remastered for this 4K Ultra HD release”; however, the technical specs show it as being a 2K digital intermediate. While images look clean and mostly sharp throughout, it doesn’t have that reference quality of other true 4K film transfers. I’m sure there are instances where the uptick in resolution makes a difference, but for the most part images looked like those of a really good Blu-ray transfer.
Images have a more film-like softness compared to modern digital productions, though closeups reveal the most detail, with you able to see the texture of the zombie makeup, or detail in clothing, or single-strands of Fanning’s hair, or the details in the arm patches worn by the sheriff’s deputies. There are some occasionally grainy moments depending on the sky lighting.
What creates the greatest benefit here is the new HDR grading, which helps boost a lot of bright highlights and keep really clean, deep, and inky black levels. There are quite a few scenes shot at night where bright lights are also in the scene, or bright red-orange fire/explosions, or the white hot of sparklers or welding sparks, or just specular highlights glinting off metal. During one fireworks explosion in a dark underground cave, I felt my eyes clamp down in response to the bright output from my OLED.
One thing I definitely noticed more on this viewing was the extensive blue streaks of lens flare, particularly at the train station. Whether this was inserted by Abrams (he’s known for his lens-flare use), a byproduct of the anamorphic lens, or just
something that is more apparent with the HDR grade, I can’t say. The additional bitrate also helps eliminate banding, such as one scene where white smoke, haze, and dust wafts up through various shades of bring lighting, which can be a real video nightmare.
Mildly disappointing is that we don’t get a new Dolby TrueHD Atmos sound mix. Even more of a bummer is that Paramount only delivered a DTS HD-Master 5.1-channel mix to digital retailers like Kaleidescape for the 4K HDR version instead of the 7.1-channel Dolby TrueHD mix featured on the physical version.
Even still, this was—and remains—a mostly reference audio experience, and the 5.1-channel mix benefits from your processor’s upmixer to provide a more immersive audio experience. The soundtrack has intense dynamics throughout, with glass shattering, doors kicked open, things crashing, explosions, etc. There is also a lot of directionality, with sounds of the creature moving around the room and overhead, glass shattering into the room, things being slammed or thrown by the alien. You also get smaller audio moments, like the electrical buzzes, hums, and mechanical noises in the creature’s lair, or the air raid sirens and helicopters buzzing about.
The train crash remains an audio tour de force, with powerful output that will put your speaker system to the test, and makes for a fantastic demo scene. There is deep, tactile bass from the subs that you’ll feel in your chest, along with explosions that rocket debris and objects up overhead and all around the room, along with the ear-piercing scream of shrieking and twisting metal. The bus escape is another fantastic demo that makes good use of all the speakers to add to the scene’s intensity.
Super 8 remains incredibly fun and entertaining, and even though there is probably an even better version of this film in store (true 4K DI, new Atmos mix) for its 15th or 20th, it is a welcome addition to any movie collection, especially if you have a younger viewer in your home who has yet to experience it.
Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing for such publications as Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at @SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.