It is always a difficult task when a director tries to recreate what they idolized in their youth. Bryan Singer and Peter Jackson were both criticized for their overly stylized, long running and nostalgic takes on Superman Returns and King Kong (though I am a fan of both those films). Here writer and director J.J. Abrams has tried to recapture his childhood days by making an homage to Steven Spielberg (who executive produces) movies from the 70s and 80s, so instead of retooling a movie, he’s retooling a time period, not a bad idea really. A group of kids in the late 70s a shooting a zombie movie late at night when they accidentally capture a huge train crash on film. Soon their small town is swarmed with military and government officials leading to the big questions, what was on the train and is it dangerous?
Abrams is a very capable director, making the best Mission: Impossible movie and the best Star Trek movie, but now he is taking on an original idea and he does it wonderfully. Of course he has the imagery and pacing of the Spielberg films to latch on to as a reference point but the film is well and truly Abrams’ (and not just because of the uses of solar flare). The film never lags, keeping the audience in the dark about the mystery behind the train crash keeps us guessing and wanting to watch, and whilst at 112 minutes it may feel long, it never feels slow or boring. He has been able to bring real and compelling performances out of the young cast he has assembled (most of the main cast are all aged around 15) Joel Courtney and Elle Fanning are both terrific in their roles, conveying real drama and emotion in their performances, you really believe everything they are going through. Riley Griffiths, Ryan Lee, Gabriel Basso and Zach Mills round out the children in the cast and each give wonderfully comedic performances bringing out real laughs whilst spouting incredibly realistic dialogue. It is odd to find that the children’s performances are far more engaging than those of the adult cast, Kyle Chandler is likeable enough but his character is never developed enough for us to fully relate to him, whilst other character actors like Michael Hitchcock, Noah Emmerich and Ron Eldard don’t have much to do.
In true Speibergian fashion, the two genres of family drama and science fiction meld together nicely to create a sense of wonder grounded with realism. The sci-fi aspect only strengthens the drama side really, giving us a new way to view a story that might have been played out before. At the end when we finally meet the contents of the train crash it may seem a little over the top but the film is played with such gusto and the drama and thrills have become so intense that it easy to let that problem go. The smartest story telling technique was letting the sci-fi plot take a back seat, it doesn’t enter the foreground until the end thus never making it feel like an imposition. The biggest problem with the sci-fi aspect is that the mystery from the train is a little disappointing and feels rather too similar to the surprise from Cloverfield. Not a big problem but would have liked to see a design that was a tad more original.
The film is truly mesmerizing in the same way that the classic Spielberg films are when they come on TV. It is wonderful to see a family film that really takes risks, puts children in danger and has themes that are a little darker than we’re used to in modern cinema (though a tad more true to life). There are very few films around like this these days (the only one that is comparable is Coraline which whilst good is nowhere near as fun as Super 8). J.J. Abrams is not the new Spielberg, but if he keeps producing movies as fun and interesting as this, he’s certainly on his way there.