If you ask most film critics about their opinion on the best decades for blockbusters, they’d wage the pros-and-cons of the ’70s and ’80s. A time where set-design prevailed over CGI backgrounds and when special effects just weren’t that special. It was a time where they focused more on the story and characters rather than just on the visual things or one-liners here and there. In a way, I agree but this year has been a great year for blockbusters, in my opinion. In fact, thanks to this film, it just got a lot better.
Plot: After witnessing a mysterious train crash, a group of friends in the summer of 1979 begin noticing strange happenings going around in their small town, and begin to investigate into the creepy phenomenon.
Perfectly, then, this is set in 1979 which is the year Alien came out - one of the best blockbusters of all time and Ridley Scott’s greatest creations. In the wake of a superhero summer, J.J. Abrams has come out with - what could easily be and was probably going to be - two different films but merged into one. It centres on a child named Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) who, four months later, is still reeling from the after-effects of losing his mother. His best friend, Charles (Riley Griffiths), is making a zombie film. This group of pre-teen kids (and one just-teen girl) are making a zombie film on a super 8 to enter into a youth film festival. They film at a sight with a new addition to the cast, Alice (Elle Fanning), who drives them there (illegally). When an air-force train is about to pass, Charles swipes at the opportunity to film while it flies past in its noisy wonderment for “production value”.
While they film Alice and (S)Martin (Gabriel Basso) doing their scene, Joe hears something. He watches as a pick-up truck malevolently derails this train - the pyromaniac, Cary (Ryan Lee) is in heaven at this moment - causing the cast to run for their lives while something unknown, perhaps a little “Extra-Terrestrial”, unhinges a door of the train and escapes. Strange things happen in this small town where car engines disappear out of showroom cars, mast wires disappear, rolling blackouts and local dogs being found but the calls “aren’t local”. These leave the deputy, Jackson Lamb (Kyle Chandler), baffled and searching for answers from a reluctant and irritated Colonel Nelec (Noah Emmerich). He occupies the town by cleaning up the train crash and insisting that there’s no danger even though they’re clearly searching for something.
What ensues is a master class on how to make a monster film, courtesy of J. J. Abrams. He shows us that showing all your cards at once is nothing but a rookie mistake and that you should take time to build anticipation but not to infuriating levels. He times it just right - like Cloverfield - by giving us milliseconds of shimmers or glimpses of the monster. We see its damage directly and indirectly yet it takes us a very long time to actually see it. As the story goes on and on we see great shots of great scenery and levels of depth - the shot of Joe biking back from Charles’s is just simple and so are the shots after the train crash and up on the hill with it in the background.
Since the kids were making a zombie movie, there are several references to director George A. Romero. For example, Romero Chemicals as the evil company, plus the poster for one of his movies in Joe’s bedroom. You can see the film that they create, The Case, during the credits.
Now, lately, I’ve been not really been a fan of children or young teens but these children are brilliant. They’re full of emotion, full of realism and yet still make things funny. I mean, their attempts at humour aren’t attempts at all because they nail every line making it a nice comedic yet tense first half of the film and a genuine second half with their brilliant acting skills. These children could go far if they don’t ruin it for themselves with drink, drugs or bad film choices from now on. They’re onto a winner here.
The only problem was the CGI which seemed to lack in areas. For example, he builds the monster and it turns out to be a semi-original concept but a little harsh. It feels like it changes in sizes to suit the surroundings. The train crash was slightly poor too in comparison but after a $150m budget summer it’s hard to expect less than borderline perfect.
It had all the recipes of a Spielberg picture with the storytelling, the character, the character development. It doesn’t feel like a blockbuster with the effort that goes into creating traits of characters that aren’t really made any more; they have noticeable personalities which are all similar yet different and they all have idiosyncrasies which are individual to each character. It’s also got all the recipes of a J. J. Abrams creation (albeit a watered down one) with excessive lens flare but less of the mind-melting. He doesn’t try to answer your questions (a bit like Lost, actually) about the creation if it, where it came from or anything like that; it just focuses on the now which is a part of its charm. A brilliant cast with a great storyline being told by one of the great writer-directors that has entered Hollywood. One of the best blockbusters of this summer.