In 1979, a pre-teen boy and his friends pass the summer by making movies together on 8mm film. But while passionately shooting their zombie flick, a train derails right in front of them, and it is later learned that something emerged from the wreckage and is now causing dangerous and mysterious happenings in this small town community. There is so much more I'd like to say about the plot, but giving any more detail in a synopsis would risk spoiling the various gems in this story that should really be experienced on a first viewing.
The movie could be described as a blend of mystery, drama, suspense and science fiction. It works for the same reason that Battlestar Galactica and the best of Farscape work. It works for the same reason that Close Encounters Of The Third Kind and E.T. work: Compelling characters you care about who experience real, emotional, human drama that just happens to have a sci-fi backdrop.
It's no surpise that this flick feels a bit like classic Spielberg movies despite being written and directed by J.J. Abrams (Star Trek). Spielberg served as a producer for this movie, and it has his trademarks all over it.
The performances are amazing across the board, especially among the kids in the lead. I felt like I was watching real kids. Not the kind that are too clever, too capable or too nice. These kids cuss when their parents aren't around, they're funny in that awkward pre-teen way and have tremendous vulnerability, which lends incredible tension to the action and suspense sequences. Either these kids will be big stars in the near future, or J.J. Abrams is a genius at bringing out authentic, genuinely emotional performances in young actors.
This movie has mastered the art of surprise action. At the moments I least expected, bad things suddenly started to happen and I jumped in my seat more times than I can keep track of. And the natural vulnerability built into young protagonists kept me cringing and on the edge of my seat during action sequences more than any movie has in years. Abrams knows that suspense works in direct proportion to how much we care about those threatened, and puts that knowledge to skillful use.
The effects are great, though not groundbreaking, and they are used very well. Creature effects are used sparingly, but not so sparingly that the movie feels cheap. Rather the creature is kept hidden and revealed only bit by bit as the movie progresses, and even in the end we never get a full screen, brightly lit shot that allows us to examine every detail. I wish more film makers would do this, instead of assuming that their special effects "masterpiece" is so cool and real looking that they can and should show it off in every frame possible.
The movie is much more cathartic than it is about expressing ideas or messages. I think you're highly unlikely to talk about anything of philosophical value after seeing this, but you may just spend 20 minutes sharing what it was that made the experience so intense or enjoyable for you.
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi action and violence, language and some drug use.
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