J.J. Abrams sets out to make an ode to the 1970s-80s films of Stephen Spielberg. He does so without making overt references to the creator of E.T. and CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, but captures the feel and style. With its young protagonists, patient pacing in developing its characters and the crafty camera work, the film is like discovering a missing Spielberg production that somehow got lost in 1984 and is now being released with "special edition" visual effects.
Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) is a teen that has just lost his mom in a steel mill accident. He's trying to cope by continuing his life. Part of doing this is helping his best friend Charles (Riley Griffiths) finish his 8mm zombie film for a local film festival. Joe's father, Deputy Sheriff Jackson Lamb (Kyle Chandler, TV's FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS), however, wants him to go to baseball camp for the summer in order to meet normal kids. The depressed widower says its what both his son and he needs.
Despite, the disapproval of his father, he sneaks out to film a train station scene at midnight. Charles has convinced the pretty Alice Dainard (Elle Fanning, SOMEWHERE) to not only be in the film, but also steal the car of her father Louis (Ron Eldard, HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG). Joe is very impressed, because he has a crush on her. She is impressed with Joe's special make-up work. Young love blooms among fake blood and the living dead.
That night however, the kids witness a truck driving on the railroad tracks, which derails the train in a remarkable action sequence. They see something break out of the container car. Crates litter the ground with strange all-white Rubix Cube-like squares. Soon Air Force officer Nelec (Noah Emmerich, LITTLE CHILDREN) shows up to investigate. The cover-up begins. After the wreck, strange happenings plague the town. Machine parts start disappearing everywhere. The electricity starts becoming irregular. People start to go missing. And that strange cube Joe took from the scene keeps bouncing.
As Deputy Lamb tries to get some answers from the military into these matters, the kids continue to make their film. Joe and Alice become close, but as it is hinted in the first scene, their parents have some history. Abrams does a great job of setting this up, using Louis' beat-up muscle car as a visual clue.
The film is at its best when dealing with the children. The dynamic between Joe and his friends feels so natural. There's also Cary (Ryan Lee, SHORTS), a kid with braces who has an obsession with fireworks; Preston (Zach Mills, CHANGELING), the goody-two-shoes who has concern for Cary's obsession with fireworks; and Martin (Gabriel Basso, TV's THE BIG C), the lead actor in Charles' film and not the smartest of the bunch.
For the most part the film balances its military cover-up plot with the kids coming of age story well. Toward the end the functions of the plot open up holes and create some lost opportunities. I was left thinking — what if Charles went with Joe on his final mission or what if Joe was a bit edgier character who lashed out after his mother's death? But you can only judge the film for what it is and it is still pretty fun.
What Abrams really gets right is the nostalgia. It's there for sure, but we're never beaten too much with "Oh how silly were we back then" moments. One involving a Walkman is nonetheless funny, so it works. The making of the 8mm film highlights the passion these kids had for cinema just in how tough it was to do. Today any kid can put a quick video up on YouTube in almost the same amount of time it took to press stop on their digital camera. These kids had to wait three days (gasp) to see their footage… and that was a rush order.
In his young performers, Abrams has found some new talents. Courtney brings a sad innocence that is charming. Griffiths and Lee are hilarious with their smartass comments. Lee is like a clone of the foul-mouth floppy-haired blonde kid from 1976's THE BAD NEWS BEARS. And how talented is the Fanning family? Elle (younger sister of Dakota) gives a performance for Charles' zombie film that might be too good for a low-budget zombie film.
If you're looking you'll see the influences from E.T., CLOSE ENCOUNTERS and JAWS throughout the story. Those films were all summer blockbusters, but they also had stories and characters. While Abrams might not have made a classic alongside those films, he has been influenced in the right ways. There are all kinds of modern visual effects going on here, but unlike so many modern films, they don't take over. Even the creature gets a motivation.
And stay for the credits to get a nice bonus.