CinemaCon 2011: A Look at SUPER 8

My gut reaction to the SUPER 8 clip package shown last night at CinemaCon.

Part of generating this excitement is showing footage from the studios’ upcoming summer blockbusters while having the stars in attendance to help hype it up. And last night’s “Celebrating the Moviegoing Experience” opening event was no exception. Jack Black (Kung Fu Panda 2), Chris Hemsworth (Thor), Jeffrey Katzenberg, J.J. Abrams (Super 8), as well as the COO of Paramount Pictures stood on the Celine Dion stage in The Colosseum to introduce sneak-peek clips of this year’s summer blockbusters.

However, before the clip reels unspooled, Mitch Neuhauser, Managing Director of CinemaCon, warned the audience that a security team of 16 people with night vision goggles would be keeping an eye on us, as well as an eye of a different kind called PirateEye. This amazingly named piece of technology sits behind the screen and automatically detects camcorders and cell phones and points out violators to a security team who’re primed to kick some pirate booty. After that serious security warning, the dog and pony show began.

Below is my gut reaction to the Super 8 clip package with the requisite spoiler warning:

Clip: 10 minutes into the movie, the main character Joe (Joel Courtney) and his father (Kyle Chandler) are eating dinner in a bar, talking about the summer ahead. His father wants him to attend a baseball camp to meet other kids and develop himself, but Joe wants to stay in town to help his friend Charles (Riley Griffiths) finish his zombie movie. As Joe flips through the camp pamphlet, his father notices that he’s clutching a silver locket once owned by his mother, who’s now deceased.

Reaction: A perfect scene to showcase the smaller character moments that will ultimately be the heart of this monster movie. Joel Courtney as Joe displays nuanced disappointment and sadness without coming off as a crybaby. A good sign that writer/director J.J. Abrams has nailed the drama of the film, but how does the monster of the film fare?

Clip: We meet the rest of Joe’s crew which includes special FX supervisor/all-around pyro, Carey (Ryan Lee); the leading man, er, kid of the zombie flick Martin (Gabriel Basso); and background extra Preston (Zach Mills). Joined by Charles, the director, and Joe, who’s doing make-up, the crew sit on a curb waiting for their ride to the location. Turns out the person giving them a ride is the leading lady of the movie and Joe’s hardcore crush: Alice, played by Elle Fanning. Joe is in awe seeing Alice, while Alice has the totally opposite reaction. She has stolen her father’s car to give everybody a ride, but with Joe’s dad being a sheriff things aren’t off to a great start.

Reaction: Everything here is Spielberg to a tee. The kid actors are natural and real, character dialogue overlaps one another, and the late 70’s patina feels genuine.

Clip: This sequence begins as the kids arrive at a desolate train station to set-up for their scene. Charles plays the director by the book, shouting orders at the crew and getting everyone into position. He takes Martin aside to rehearse and in a funny exchange gives him an awkward line-reading. Charles asks Alice if she wants to go over the lines and she shuts him down quickly with a “Yeah, yeah, I got it.” Before the camera rolls Martin and Alice do a dry run while the crew watches. And to the surprise of everyone, Alice delivers a confident and deep performance that leaves them stunned with Martin even clearing away tears that have welled up in his eyes.

Then, the sound of a train approaches. Charles sees the locomotive coming over the horizon and screams “Production value!” The crew races to get film into the camera and start recording just as the train passes. Martin and Alice play the scene as they had before, but this time yelling over the train’s roar. Joe keeps looking back and forth from the scene being filmed and the train as it flies by. Suddenly, he notices a truck crest over a hill and turn right into the path of the train, a head-to-head collision is inevitable. He screams out right before the truck and train collide, but it’s too late and the resulting crash sends the train and all of its cars careening off the rails as the kids run for cover.

Reaction: Whew, definitely the most packed and exciting clip of the ones shown last night. You get a real sense of the emotional scope and scope of action that J.J. is attempting to combine with Super 8. On both fronts he succeeds beyond expectation. Creating the perfect venn digram of comedy, drama, horror and action.

In one scene you go from an amazing singular performance by Elle Fanning, mixed in with some strong comedic notes and then are thrust into an exhilarating action sequence of destruction. All of which pays homage to Producer Steven Spielberg’s classic film set-up of “ordinary people caught in extraordinary circumstances.” It was a joy to see J.J. pull it off with such bravado while maintaining surgical control of the tone. It originally was two story ideas that he molded into one, but you would never have gotten that from this experience.

Clip: A local cop stop at a gas station to fill up and tease the store attendant about his new Walkman. “It’s a slippery slope,” he says as he exits the store back to his car. The gas pump chimes rhythmically as the cop waits for it to finish. Suddenly, there’s an odd sound, the sound of distant high pitched voices that pierces the air. The cop looks out into the night seeing nothing and then hears his police radio fill with static. Then the gas pump chimes begin to speed up, the wind begins to blow hard and then silence. The cop turns to look down the side of the store only to see a garbage dumpster sliding towards him. Meanwhile, inside the store, the attendant is oblivious to what’s going on outside since he’s got his headphones on. Once he does notice, he goes outside and sees the backend of the police car crushed. He gets closer to investigate and catches a quick glance at the monster via the reflection from a pool of spilled gasoline. The attendant looks up at something we can’t see and dashes into the store, only to be tripped and grabbed by the monster. We catch one more glimpse of the creature as the gas station marquee revolves to block our view.

Reaction: A tightly executed sequence of tension that I’m sure is just an example of the many more sequences like it in Super 8. There’s touches of Close Encounters of the Third Kind with oddly acting objects and lens flares. The creature itself, from the three seconds total of it being on screen, looks like the creature from Cloverfield, but J.J. did warn in the intro that FX were still being worked on. For all I know they could’ve used the creature from Cloverfield not only to throw us off, but as a convenience since they already had it fully rendered.

Overall reaction: The clip package was perfectly balanced, encompassing the breadth of genre-types that make up Super 8. You have the purely dramatic character scene with Joe and his dad in the bar, the full on horror/thriller scene at the gas station, and then the middle clip that showed both of these genres at play simultaneously with a slice of action.

I think it was important to show these facets and obviously J.J. did too. As he said in the intro, Super 8 is fighting an uphill battle in the summer movie war since it’s not a sequel, not based on a comic book or other existing work. It’s wholly original and word-of-mouth is its best shot at building buzz.

All in all, I will definitely be in line to see Super 8 on June 10th and I hope you are too. We need to continue to support voices like J.J. Abrams who toe the line of mainstream fare and artistic vision. Kind of like another filmmaker I know and love, Mr. Spielberg.

I’ll be posting up my reactions to the Captain America: The First Avenger and Thor clips tomorrow so stay tuned for more CinemaCon news!