Set in 1979, Joel Courtney and his young friends are shooting a zombie movie on their Super-8 camera when they witness (and quickly film) a freight train going past, soon to be rammed by a tow-truck driven by their school science teacher (Glynn Turman). The next day, the military (headed by Noah Emmerich) swoops in and quarantines the small town. The kids (including Riley Griffiths and Ryan Lee), and Courtney’s widowed sheriff father (played by Kyle Chandler) feel that something just isn’t right. And then all kinds of strange shit starts happening across town and people are disappearing. Elle Fanning is the pretty young girl roped into appearing in the zombie movie whom Courtney has a thing for. Eldard is Fanning’s hopeless drunk father who doesn’t much like Chandler (and vice versa). Richard T. Jones is Emmerich’s subordinate.
The following review will be revealing a pretty well-known (by now) plot development in the film, so I’ll give a **** SPOILER WARNING **** from here on out, anyone who hasn’t seen the film is best advised to read this later.
I had been wanting to see this 2011 J.J. Abrams (“Star Trek”, TV’s “Lost”) flick ever since I first heard about it. It looked like a really enjoyable modern blend of Spielbergian films like “The Goonies” (which he produced) and “E.T: The Extra Terrestrial”. It would appear that something has gone wrong. Perhaps Abrams simply isn’t close to being on Spielberg’s level as a filmmaker (few are), or maybe his style of filmmaking isn’t compatible with Spielberg’s. Or perhaps Abrams is more a fan of “Close Encounters” than he is of “E.T.”, but whatever the reason, this film just isn’t fun (certainly not as much fun as “E.T.” or “Jaws”). Abrams brings up familiar Spielberg trappings and characters (broken families, etc.), but with none of the sense of awe, innocence, or adventure that marked many of Spielberg’s best films. Fans of “Close Encounters” might enjoy it more (I never really liked that one), but for the most part, the closest this film gets to “E.T.” is the Amblin Entertainment logo at the beginning of the film (Spielberg produced the film).
Aside from maybe Elle Fanning, none of the young actors has an ounce of charisma (lead actor Joel Courtney is particularly uninteresting in his feature debut), and Abrams’ script doesn’t bother to give any of the characters beyond Kyle Chandler and Joel Courtney’s an ounce of depth. Compare that to the likes of Henry Thomas and Drew Barrymore in “E.T.” or the easily distinguishable brood in “The Goonies”, and this film just doesn’t stack up (Fanning does, however, look more like Drew than her own sister Dakota Fanning if you ask me and her squeal sure is familiar). You’ve got the girl, the fat kid, the little one, the lead character, etc. They don’t go beyond that one dimension, the way the kids in “The Goonies” eventually did (With the advantage of a charismatic cast, admittedly). The kids in this film talk too loudly over the top of one another if you ask me, especially early on. They’re a little annoying and pretty uninteresting, with Ron Eldard also miscast as the mopey town drunk, and Noah Emmerich too obviously cast.
It’s as if Abrams has grown up watching all of Spielberg’s films (whether as director or producer) and failed to learn a damn thing from them. The Spielberg film it most closely resembles is actually “War of the Worlds” (co-starring Dakota Fanning), only not nearly as effective as that underrated film was.
Contrary to popular opinion (in a review that is entirely contrary to popular opinion, I suppose), the film actually gets better as it goes along and the action kicks in. From that standpoint, it’s a well-directed film. The spectacular train crash early on, however, is ridiculous, despite great sound FX. I mean, why were the kids heading towards it? Who would do that? No one, outside of a movie. The ending, however, is appalling (What is it with Abrams and shit endings to supernaturally-tinged stories?). Aside from a cute Spielbergian in-joke, it comes across as overly sappy given the destruction and death that has preceded it. We’re meant to feel sympathy for the alien despite it killing lots of people? Not buying it.
The film does have its moments, and I especially liked the cinematography by Larry Fong (“Sucker Punch”) and the strong music score by Abrams regular Michael Giacchino (“Star Trek”, “Up”). The alien looks terrific, in my opinion. It looks unlike anything on Earth (a pet peeve of mine with these kinds of things), until you get a close-up of its face and it’s unmistakably familiar, but in a fun in-joke kinda way (especially when you find out what it really wants). I applaud Abrams for learning from Spielberg in obscuring our view of it for so long, though it takes far too long for the main thrust of the film to kick in. By then, I was bored.
It’s a lot darker than I was expecting, but that in and of itself isn’t necessarily a problem. It’s just that there’s very little depth to it, very little in the way of wonderment, and certainly lacking in adventure. Maybe my expectations are unfair, but I call it as I see it, and this film greatly disappointed me. I don’t think I’ve been this disappointed with a movie since (ironically enough) Spielberg’s “Jurassic Park”. Who was Abrams aiming this film at? It certainly doesn’t seem like it would appeal to kids, and the tone even alienated me at age 32.
I’m sorry, but the best part of this film is the faux Super-8 film the kids make, which we see over the end credits of the film. It has the sense of fun that this film overall sorely lacks. Nostalgia is great and all, but I’d rather re-visit “E.T.” or “The Goonies” (or “Gremlins”, “Explorers”, or even “War of the Worlds”) than sit through Abrams’ botch-job homage.