E.T. meets Cloverfield while remaking Night of the Living Dead. While it’s not perfect, it’s honestly one of the most interesting films that’s been out all year and certainly this summer.
Set in 1979, middle-schooler Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) has learned to take care of himself since his mother’s death. His father, Jackson (Kyle Chandler) is a deputy in the police department and often not at home. When not in school, Joe helps his buddy Charles (Riley Griffiths) work on an Indie zombie movie for a film festival, even sneaking out at night for shoots. After Charles talks fellow classmate Alice (Elle Fanning) into being in the movie, the filmmakers venture out to a lonely local train station to film a scene. When an unscheduled train rockets past the station and is suddenly derailed, something is unleashed in their small town of Lillian, Ohio. What’s a ‘tween film crew to do? Continue filming using the disaster as a background, of course.
There’s a lot going on in this film, but the kid cast pulls it off believably. This is a film about growing up and taking responsibility masquerading as a scifi adventure, a staple of producer Steven Spielberg’s early directorial and production work. To the credit of writer/director J.J. Abrams, the so-called creature in the film is barely a footnote, little more than a catalyst for the kids to step up and grow up. It’s a refreshing point of view watching them carry on in spite of all the wrong going on around them, and the audience is rewarded during the credits with the actual product of their work. More Goonies than E.T., this film isn’t about the monster; it’s about the kids.
For any of this to work, the cast has to be spot on, and the casting of this group worked out very well. Joel Courtney is a natural in front of the camera, transforming from yes-man/wing-man to take the lead. Riley Griffiths manages to evoke the manic energy and intensity of a film director in pushing to get his film done; there are moments where he could have become “the bad guy,” but Abrams thankfully wrote him more complex than that. Then there’s Elle Fanning, ethereal in her presence and able to play her character seemingly unaware of the effect she has on others. Like earlier Spielberg fare in the same genre, the adults are primarily one-note constructs (which is appropriate from a kid’s point of view) but Abrams has written just enough complexities in to make them less of a joke.
Like most of these films, the main character has suffered a personal family tragedy that the remaining parent can’t seem to stop dwelling on but the kid seems to have adjusted to but still misses the parent. The disconnection is ever-present on screen and throughout the story, resolving itself naturally and feeling unforced. Even with some of the most fantastic things happening on screen (Army guys running and shooting, trains derailing, explosions, monsters), the grounded nature of these kids shines through while most (but not all) of the adults seem dumbfounded. With the pedigree of the filmmakers and producer involved, expectations couldn’t help but be high, but with a summer full of sure-fire sequels, it’s nice to see the risks in making this kind of film pay off.
(three and a half skull recommendation out of four)