First Impressions: J.J. Abrams Reveals Astounding 'Super 8' Footage
by Alex Billington
March 24, 2011
"I believe." I took a last minute trip to New York this week because I didn't want to miss a special premiere of 20 minutes of unseen footage from J.J. Abrams' new sci-fi movie Super 8, which has been my most anticipated of 2011 since the trailer debuted a few weeks ago. Many have been waiting to see if the movie has more subsistence than just paying homage to Steven Spielberg's great sci-fi classics of the 70s and 80s, and after seeing a good 20 minutes of footage, it unquestionably does. To me, it seems like Abrams has already created a movie that could be a classic, but without first taking us on an incredible adventure this summer.
Paramount hosted an intimate sneak peek at their 2011 slate, with a focus on Super 8, in New York City last night. Chairman Brad Grey took the stage first and talked about how they've been incredibly successful in recent years, before showing a stunning promo reel of their past, present and future - including a first look at Mission: Impossible Ghost Protocol (more on that below). Then he introduced J.J. Abrams to the stage, where he talked about how this project came together, how he repaired Steven Spielberg's 8mm films when he was 16, and how Super 8 was actually formulated by combining two separate ideas. Then he unveiled the new footage and it was indeed amazing. Don't worry, I've remained spoiler free recapping all of this!
The first chunk of footage we saw was essentially the entire train wreck sequence seen in all of the trailers, which is how the alien first arrives in their town. There were a few scenes on the front end introducing us to the characters, including Joe (played by newcomer Joel Courtney), the young kid who is the lead of the film, and his father (played by Kyle Chandler), the deputy sheriff. Joe hangs out with a fun group of friends, but as Abrams' described, Joe is a "follower", not a leader. Instead, his friend Charles (played by Riley Griffiths) is the leader and a wannabe filmmaker. This group of young friends, including Elle Fanning, sneak away at night to a train station to film a scene of a zombie movie they're making on a Super 8 camera.
Within just 10 minutes of footage, Abrams already made me care for all of these characters, especially Joe. The focus really is on Joe and his brooding romance for Elle Fanning's character, which was easy to pick up on simply because of the way Abrams shot the scenes and the way Joe looks at her. It's beautiful to watch. It's one of those romances that will hit you square in the heart. Joe is the "make-up and sound guy" and as soon as they begin filming, a train starts coming - that's when all hell breaks loose. Right as it passes and they're shooting, as was seen in the teaser, a truck rams the train and the entire thing derails and explodes.
But that teaser is nothing compared to the actual scene. It was intense and amazing. I thought I'd seen a train wreck before, but obviously not a J.J. Abrams train wreck. The sound design and camera angles and explosions made it feel like it was entirely real, while the kids run off scattering in all directions, trying to survive as train cars go flying overheard and explode all around them. This was just an early opening scene, yet it was still absolutely incredible. Abrams already built up the characters, the romance, the storyline in this town with these kids, all before this alien even shows up. But that was the next little tease he gave us.
The second scene we saw was set at a gas station near the wreck. While I won't giveaway much, basically it's the "first encounter" with the alien creature (who wasn't revealed yet). You may have noticed the shot in the trailer where a guy gets dragged from behind - that's the scene. This is also another moment where the songs of the late 70's play into the film in a big way, as the clerk has a walkman and is listening to a Blondie song; we also heard The Knack's "My Sharona" in the previous train wreck scene, as it came out the summer the movie takes place (1979). The gas station scene also shows us just how menacing and angry the creature is, as it goes all out on the gas station clerk, but we still don't get to see much as Abrams' hides it perfectly.
Super 8 feels genuine in every way, inspired by Abrams' own film-centric youth. At the start, he told a story about how he had won a Super 8 filmmaking contest with Matt Reeves when they were 16 and was called up by Spielberg's assistant to repair his old 8mm films (Firelight and Escape to Nowhere). That is truly when the foundation of Super 8 was originally laid, as Spielberg is now producing this, until we skip ahead many years later. He explained that the film we see today is a combination of the train wreck premise and an idea for the Super 8 story with the kids in a small town that he pitched to Spielberg. It's not a "monster movie", because it's really about the kids, just like The Goonies and E.T. and many other all-time classics like those.
From what I've seen of this movie so far, I really think it could be one of the best of 2011, perhaps even a classic that stands up the likes of Spielberg's greatest. It's one of those films that I dreamt I would one day see while older, as it reminds me of my youth and the first time I watched all the sci-fi greats like E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, hell, even The Sandlot (in regards to the camaraderie of the kids in it), as it was those kind of films that made me fall in love with movies to begin with. Abrams' filmmaking is not only refreshingly modern and exhilarating to watch, but impeccably evokes that classic feeling of science fiction brilliance, which I don't think we've seen in a long time. I can not wait to see this in its entirety.
J.J. Abrams also happens to be involved in another exciting franchise - Mission: Impossible. During the Paramount promo reel, they included a 30-second glimpse of footage from Mission: Impossible Ghost Protocol, directed by Pixar alum Brad Bird, starring Tom Cruise again and Jeremy Renner. Damn did that look great, too! It had a bit of a gritty, Bourne feel to it, but within the Mission: Impossible world. And the scenes on the Burj Khalifa tower where Cruise did his own stunts are truly breathtaking. I am extremely excited to see those shots in IMAX, as they were actually shot with IMAX cameras, as was about 20 to 30 minutes of the movie. Unfortunately, we don't expect to see the trailer for this until the summer.
I also got to meet and chat briefly with J.J. Abrams after the event. I showed him my new avatar on Twitter that I changed to a picture from Super 8, which was probably a bigger geek out moment for me than for him. But it was still an honor to shake the hand of and talk with one of my favorite filmmakers of this day & age.
To wrap things up and keep everyone excited for Super 8, I've added a quick video blog below that Jordan Raup of The Film Stage and I recorded after returning from the presentation, talking about our thoughts on the footage and more. I truly hope my excitement and love for Super 8 is passing on to everyone else, as this extraordinary sci-fi film deserves the attention and appreciation, not only for being an entirely original concept, but for being made by an unbelievably talented team of filmmakers with a love for cinema as well as a passion for telling truly remarkable and unforgettable stories. Super 8 arrives in theaters June 10th.