What we learned from 20 minutes of footage from J.J. Abrams' Super 8

Last night, we got a sneak peek at 20 minutes of J.J. Abrams' Super 8. So did the mysterious film live up to our expectations? And just how does Abrams' movie pay tribute to Steven Spielberg? We asked, he answered.

How J.J. Met Spielberg (At The Age Of 16)

J.J. started off the night with a story about how he first started working for Steven Spielberg (Super 8's producer), repairing the director's old childhood Super 8 films. Which was actually the same story that Abrams shared with Joss Whedon on the "Visionaries" panel at last years Comic Con. Thankfully, there's a recording of that exact speech.

The point of this yarn, besides it being a weird, only-in-Hollywood type of origins tale, was that both director and producer were fascinated with the simpler time when they were just boys making movies in the mud. Abrams remarked that he "loved that time," it felt "full of possibility and potential." This sort of nostalgic yearning is exactly what comes acros in the footage we witnessed last night. Super 8 is trying to make an honest action film that makes you feel like a kid again — without pandering. It yanks at your nostalgic heartstrings by setting the movie in anywheresville USA and casting the same group of goons you hung out with as a kid.

Excellent Action Carnage

What we learned from 20 minutes of footage from J.J. Abrams' Super 8

Even though Abrams just about begged the audience not to be too critical of the first clip (the train crash sequence) citing a list of problems with the footage, "it's overly long, has unfinished FX, temp music," we really didn't see much of a problem. What you saw was the drawn out train collision from the trailer. And just like in the trailer, this was wholly from the perspective of the kids (unlike in the teaser where you're riding shot gun pick-up truck in the head on collision). And it was intense. The whole action sequence felt real, solid, like the weight of the cargo train was being hurled towards the camera.

Plus, as CinemaBlend pointed out, you could tell what was happening. Too often are the characters lost in the rubble of exploding action on screen. But in this very short moment you knew where every single child was, which was why it was even more horrifying (Move move move! you're going to get squashed!). Another great plus for this realistic train turnover: the reaction of the participants in the horror show. After all was said and done, there wasn't a single sassy quip to be had. One of the characters just leans over and vomits. Which is exactly what I would do had I been in that situation myself. And yet the action didn't feel forced or disgusting. It was like watching Chief Brody get his sea legs, vomiting, cursing and smoking. Not once did you stop liking the character because what he was doing was revolting. It was a real reaction to an absurd situation. The action and reaction felt very real.

Not An R-Rated Film

What we learned from 20 minutes of footage from J.J. Abrams' Super 8


Even though the action was intense, Abrams does not want this film to be an R-Rated movie. In fact, most of the really gruesome destruction happens off camera. "It's about the tension," Abrams stressed. And he plays with this idea very well. The second scene we peeped was set in a gas station where two civilians come face to face with the unknown beast. Nothing is revealed. Sure people get dragged off by unknown forces (past a Slusho! shout out) but you never see what is pulling at their legs. Which makes it all the more scarier when you start imagining what could have happened, and what the powerful beast could look like.

What's In The Box J.J.? What's In The Box?

What we learned from 20 minutes of footage from J.J. Abrams' Super 8


Abrams went to great lengths to keep the origins story of the mysterious creature that escapes the US AIR FORCE box car a secret (which is understandable). Throughout the night he called the being a "THING" or a "Creature." Never did he address the being as an alien or, mutant, or even a science experiment. He's trying his best to keep this thing under wraps. So don't expect a spoilery toy line to come out and blow the ending of the film. Abrams was pretty intent on keeping the big reveal of the creature a secret, until the first screening. But he did promise that Super 8 would deliver the monster money shot you crave. "The Thing," however, did have many nicknames, but unfortunately the only one suitable for print was the name Cooper. Take that for what it's worth.

There Is NO Shortage of Abramsian Lens Flares, Even In The 70s

What we learned from 20 minutes of footage from J.J. Abrams' Super 8


The only thing we were a bit taken aback by was the excessive use of lens flare in this retro film. Abrams has already admitted that his lens flare addiction in the 2009 Star Trek film was ridiculous. Even last night he quipped that yes there were still, "so many fucking lens flares" in Star Trek.

And yet, the director clearly still needs his flare fix. The Super 8 footage was absolutely littered with this camera trick. You've seen it in the trailer already, and while we hoped this was some sort of splashy "let's make the trailer sing" idea, there's even MORE in the film. Thankfully, they're not nearly half as obtrusive as the Trek flares, and some moments were actually quite beautiful and felt impossibly organic. But, as gorgeous as they were, there were still way too many lens flares for a film set in the past.

When asked why so many flares, Abrams explained: Because he liked them. He used them whenever he felt "it was cool," and that he felt that he used them sparingly enough. It was kind of an excellent, "I like it, what of it" moment. It's hard to disagree with the man, as they are indeed beautiful in Super 8. We're just not sure they're necessary when the main character applies make-up to one characters nose. But that's just our two cents. And honestly if the one thing that gives us concern is a gorgeous (albeit overdone camera trick) we're good. So what's Abrams' favorite lens flare, why it's the anamorphic lens flare.

Real Kids

What we learned from 20 minutes of footage from J.J. Abrams' Super 8

But the biggest buzz that came out of last night's screening wasn't the alien talk or even spying all sorts of geeky references stuffed inside the main character's bedroom. Everyone was chattering about the kids. After viewing thousands of children actors Abrams successfully found a non-LA, non-Hollywood group of students that feel like the same kids you went to school with. The stand-out was main character Joel Courtney who played Joe. The few moments we spent with Joel and his father, broken down sheriff (the amazing) Kyle Chandler, you instantly connected with him. He's the new Elliot, the Mikey. How did this connection happen so quickly? See the above goofy grin. When in the presence of his crush, he gets all doe-eyed, but still retains enough common sense to command the audience's attention. He's the heart of this story and possibly the emotional crutch for his friends and his father. Something that would probably tempt most directors to twist into some sort of jaded inner turmoil. Instead, from what we could tell, he's a normal iphone-free kid. Thank goodness.

You Can Have Your Alien Wonderment

What we learned from 20 minutes of footage from J.J. Abrams' Super 8

We've been calling Super 8 "the return of alien wonderment" for some time here. But Abrams wants no part of it, or at least, he doesn't want us to think he's striving for that sort of emotional appeal. "The point of this film isn't to excrete wonder," he stated. "I remember a time in the 80s where every film like felt like oh no another attempt to recreate wonder." Fair enough, we suppose telling your audience that you're trying to achieve wonder is a bit much, but then why so many shots of the characters looking up into the sky, in what certainly looks like wonder?

These Kids Are The Next Generation of Goonies

What we learned from 20 minutes of footage from J.J. Abrams' Super 8


I know we've gushed about the kids earlier, but truly the biggest take away moment of the night was bonding (even if it was for a short while) with this band of familiar kids from your past. Whether it was the obnoxious braces jutting out of the mouth of one character (which had to be removed and replaced with retro braces), the leader of the groups pompous attitude or main character Joe's googly eyes, we know these kids. And we're overjoyed that the premise of the film is wrapped tightly around this group relationship (and homemade zombie movie). They were fascinating and real, it's as simple has putting a bunch of kids on a stoop and having them sing "My Sharona," but hell if it didn't work.