Super 8 A Shining Example of Why DVD Owners Should Go Blu-ray
By Jim Bray
What a wonderful summer popcorn movie Super 8 is! Too bad it's now November and the howling winds and snows of winter are arriving.
On the other hand, since Super 8 opens during winter, maybe that'll make a nice bridge…
Anyway, J.J. Abrams' Super 8, the first film he's directed since his fantastic Star Trek resuscitation a couple of years ago, comes across as an obvious – but welcome, if you like the genre – tribute to the teen adventure/sci fi films of a couple of decades past, the time (coincidentally, I'm sure) in which this movie is set.
It takes a little bit of E.T., a lot of Explorers, a smidgen of The Goonies, a lot of Close Encounters of the Third Kind and blends it with a healthy dose of Cloverfield (without the first person camera work) to create a movie that, while derivative, is a fantastic adventure that works beautifully on its own.
Oh, yeah, add The Greatest Show on Earth to the mix, too, thanks to a completely unbelievable but very, very cool train wreck near the film's beginning.
I loved it!
Besides Abrams, the big name associated with Super 8 is Steven Spielberg. This is an obvious choice, since the famed director/producer's name can be spoken in the same breath as nearly any of the abovementioned films from which Super 8 takes its obvious inspiration. And the ones he wasn't involved with he might as well have been.
Super 8 gets a bit maudlin and predictable at times, but not too much and it's easy to forgive such lapses and enjoy the roller coaster ride for what it is.
What it is is the story of a group of friends working on the Super 8 film of one of them. Charles (Riley Griffiths) is making the film to enter into a contest. It's a zombie film and his friends are on hand to do special effects, makeup, acting duties, camera work, you name it. The real hero is Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney), who lost his mother to an industrial accident at the movie's beginning. The love interest is Alice (Elle Fanning), a babe from school who the director has his eyes on and casts in the movie, but who gravitates to Joe even though she's nervous about his father, the deputy sheriff.
They're filming one night a local train station when a train comes along unexpectedly, giving Charles "production values" to use in his no-budget film. But – shades of "Greatest Show on Earth" – someone drives a pickup truck onto the tracks and causes a huge wreck that by itself is worth the price of admission. And nobody's killed! Well, nobody that we know of.
Wouldn't you know, it's a military train and over time – as the armed forces move in to clean up and, eventually, take over the whole small town in which the "accident" happened – it becomes obvious that there's a lot more going on here than a relatively straight forward crash.
And from here we head into a delicious monster movie where the mostly unseen (we do get a couple of reasonable glimpses, though) and obviously mean creature wreaks havoc on the landscape and population of the town. It's up to the kids to outwit the military (which, typically in such films, isn't all that difficult – not so much because they're military but because their adults) and rescue the girl – and along the way befriend the misunderstood alien menace so he/she/it stops his/her/its rampage.
Yeah, it's all predictable and we've seen it all before, but Abrams has taken all these familiar elements and stuck them into a blender, the resulting story being "puree" fun – a vintage story told with today's special effects, production values, and technology.
And that makes the Blu-ray medium perfect for watching this film. It's easily the best way to enjoy a show such as this to its best, thanks not only to the 1080/24p potential of the high definition disc, but also to the lossless audio formats the medium allows.
Which brings me to a couple of comments about Blu-ray versus DVD. I've been reviewing Blu-rays for nearly five years now, after having enjoyed DVD's immensely for something like 10 years before that. I got my first VCR in about 1978 and, with partners, helped pioneer the video revolution via the video rental store concept that now seems on its last legs (and aren't I glad we sold when we did!)
Anyway, I loved DVD. It provided the best audio/video available to that time and, much to my chagrin, killed my beloved laserdisc format so quickly it was as if it had been swept away by hordes of barbarians. With DVD, we could get true widescreen and awesome digital sound the likes of which no one had ever heard short of, perhaps, a movie theater or, perhaps, one of the better laserdiscs.
So I found it interesting to watch a DVD again last weekend. It was Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, part 1, which I wanted to see again to get me back up to speed with the series in anticipation of the final movie's Blu-ray. Alas, I had lent it to a friend who returned it for my "re-education" process – except he must have left the high def disc in his player because when I opened the package only the DVD was there!
Yeah, that's what I get for lending stuff…
Anyway, I had to watch the DVD! I thought I was going to die!
So I fired up the home theater and plopped the DVD into my player. No biggie, I thought; I love Blu-ray, but a DVD like Potter should look and sound pretty darn good upconverted to 1080p, with audio provided by a 5.1 set of lovely JBL ES Series speakers fed by 250 watts per channel of fine Rotel sound.
And it sucked!
Well, if I hadn't been spoiled by multiple years of watching Blu-rays I probably wouldn't know the difference. Also, if I weren't such an audio/videophile (my wife thinks I should write "snob" instead of "phile") it probably wouldn't matter – but the Potter DVD experience drove home to me just how superior Blu-ray is compared to DVD.
Surprisingly, I noticed the difference more on the audio side than the video, due undoubtedly in part to the fine upconverting job the Oppo player did and the excellent quality of my plasma TV.
Indeed, when I had reviewed the DTS-HD Master Audio lossless track on the Potter BD disc, I pointed out that it was so dynamic I actually had to turn the system down a tad (a phenomenon I had to repeat last night with Super 8). Yet the DVD's track, while clean, sounded lifeless in comparison with the lossless track on the Blu-ray.
Yep, in a few short years, I'd forgotten just how inferior DVD technology is to the high def disc!
So my advice for any of you who value the best sound possible and have yet to make the move to Blu-ray, is to quit stalling and give yourself and your family a Blu-ray Christmas. Whether it's for movies or concerts, your ears (though perhaps not your neighbors) will thank you.
The downside to this advice is that you may need to upgrade your audio system as well, to ensure your receiver/processor can handle the lossless formats. Fortunately, this can be accomplished easily and for not a lot of money. Heck, you can get a home theater in a box that includes Blu-ray player and all the audio you need, and it'll do a creditable job.
Naturally, spending more on better quality components will net you better results, but if your budget and/or lifestyle (and/or interest level) aren't enough to justify that, rest assured you can be served very well by an inexpensive system these days. Having spent far more than that on my stuff, I find that quite annoying.
Anyway, back to Super 8
The Super 8 Blu-ray I received was a combo-pack that contained the BD, a DVD and digital copy. Naturally, I eschewed all but the Blu-ray for this review.
I'm glad I did, 'cause this is another excellent example of the species. The 1080/24p picture isn't as "leap off the screen great" as some discs', but that's more because of the look the filmmakers chose to give the film than any technical flaw. If you saw Abrams' Star Trek and liked how it looked, you'll be at home here. Detail is tremendous; you can make out every pore on the actors' faces, the fine textures of their clothes, all that good stuff. The train wreck looks like the stuff of nightmares!
But since most of the movie is set at night – or later, underground – a lot of it is quite dark, though the disc's fine black level performance lets everything shine through quite nicely.
So while I might not use Super 8 as a reference disc for showing off or testing systems, it still makes a darn fine home theater espeience.
Ditto for the lossless Dolby TrueHD 7.1 audio mix which, as mentioned, is so dynamic I had to turn it down a tad lest it wake the dead in the cemetery a few miles away. It's simply unbelievable.
Be aware: you may be tempted to crank it at the beginning, where the film is dialogue-centric and there isn't a lot happening. But by the time that train starts wrecking, you'll be assaulted (in a good way!) by an enveloping and stirring audio mix that simply has to be heard to be believed.
It isn't just the sound of scraping metal, there are explosions emanating from all around you, screams from the kids as they try to make themselves scarce, and a subwoofer that seems nearly in danger of jumping into the next room, such is the power of its output.
It's great! It's loud, jarring, in your face, and just simply splendid.
And of course there are extras, supposedly over two hours' worth, including a commentary by writer/director Abrams, joined by producer Bryan Burk and cinematographer Larry Fong. It's pretty dry and quite technical, so not one of the most entertaining examples of such tracks, but you will learn quite a bit about the production.
You also get seven featurettes (with a "Play all" feature) that also cover just about anything that might interest you about the film, from concept ("The Dream") to casting ("The Search for New Faces"), to the special effects ("The Visitor Lives"), the score, etc. There is also a bunch of deleted scenes and a separate look at creating the train wreck.
Super 8 is one of my favorite movies from 2011, a brash tour de force whose young cast seems perfectly at home in a big budget Hollywood movie. It's fun, it's loud, it's exciting – and I even jumped a few times at some of the "Boos!" Abrams has put into the script.
A delicious evening in the home theater!
Copyright 2011 Jim Bray
Jim Bray's columns are available from the TechnoFile Syndicate.