(2011) Sci-Fi Adventure (Paramount) Kyle Chandler, Elle Fanning, Joel Courtney, Gabriel Basso, Noel Emmerich, Ron Eldard, Ryan Lee, Ryan Griffiths, Zach Mills, AJ Michalka, Glynn Turman, Bruce Greenwood, Michael Giacchino, Dan Castellaneta. Directed by J.J. Abrams
There is an age that is magic, when the possibilities of life are endless and unimaginable. At that age, summer stretches out like a magic carpet, taking us anywhere and everywhere. Some of those places are places we might not necessarily want to be.
Young Joe Lamb (Courtney) is mourning the death of his mother in a steel mill accident. His father, Deputy Jackson Lamb (Chandler) has some anger issues, blaming town drunk Louis Dainard (Eldard) for his wife’s demise.
Joe’s best friend is Charles Kaznyk (Griffiths), a movie made husky kid who is making a zombie movie for a film festival, on Super 8 stock. Oh, did I mention that this is 1979? It is. Anyway, they want to shoot at the train station and Charlie has decided to add a love interest for his lead actor Martin (Basso) and into the picture comes Alice Dainard (Fanning), the daughter of Louis. She is drawn to Joe, who does the make-up and sound, whose melancholy draws her like a moth to a flame. Neither of them realizes the issue between their fathers, or what Louis’ role in the death of Joe’s mom is.
While filming at the train station, they witness what appears to be an intentional derailment of the freight train by a pickup truck which, to their shock, is driven by their science teacher (Turman) who warns them to tell nobody. When military types led by the hardnosed Colonel Nelec (Emmerich) swoop in, they believe their teacher may have been right.
Soon it becomes apparent that there was something aboard the freight train that wasn’t supposed to be there, something terrifying and angry. People disappear, dogs disappear and property is damaged. The military is covering it up. It has something to do with a creature that was captured on the young filmmaker’s camera, and some strange cubes. When the military insists on evacuating the town, the kids – including pyromaniac cameraman Cary (Lee) will find out the truth, and risk everything to rescue one of their own.
Director Abrams has crafted a loving homage to Steven Spielberg’s early works (and Spielberg produced this under his Amblin banner) especially E.T. and maybe Poltergeist with a heaping helping of The Goonies for good measure. Setting this in 1979 was a good move; it places it squarely in Spielberg’s golden era and adds that nostalgic sheen to the movie.
The juvenile actors in this movie do a really whiz-bang job. Fanning, who up to now has been overshadowed by her sister Dakota, pulls her best performance yet as the lovely but shy Alice, who is the object of affection for Joe. She is both kind and sweet but with a tormented side which shows from time to time. It’s a bravura performance that is nearly matched by Courtney, who is the hero here and a boy who is coping with overwhelming grief and a father who is distant from him and was so even before his wife died.
Now, I’ve made it pretty clear that I’m not big on the “kids saving the day” types of movies. They tend to be insulting to the intelligence of both kids and adults. Still, this one is better than most, harkening back to some of the best movies of the 70s and 80s with 21st century flair and awesome creature effects. What’s not to like?
REASONS TO GO: A really great creature feature, E.T. meets Cloverfield. Some fine juvenile performances.
REASONS TO STAY: Kids saving the day syndrome.
FAMILY VALUES: The creature can be terrifying and there are some scenes that might be disturbing for the very young. There’s also some language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The name of the town, Lillian, is named for director J.J. Abrams’ grandmother.
HOME OR THEATER: Definitely big screen. This is a popcorn movie all the way.
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10