Nostalgia. Not for certain time, but for a certain kind of film making. J.J.Abrams has been criticized for making films very much like the “old” Steven Spielberg films, but I think that’s silly – those were very good films.
The premise is simple enough, a group of kids in a small town is shooting a film as part of a project then something happens – a train crash. The military becomes involved, mysterious events unfold, people start to go missing, and it all builds up predictably towards the climactic end sequences where all is revealed. Throw in an unlikely, and wounded hero, a little bit of teen-love, and some snappy dialogue and you’ve got yourself a movie. And loud noises, DON’T FORGET LOUD NOISES!
Although formulaic in almost every way imaginable, the predictability does not take away from the enjoyment of the film. Many other films bring all the right elements together, but still somehow don’t “work”, they don’t suspend the audience’s disbelief, and often fail to make that emotional connection that ties viewers to the characters in the film. This film works, and it works well.
In many ways it most closely resembled E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Since Star Trek, Abrams seems to have developed a liking for using lens-flare in many of his shots and this has become part of his signature style (something I’m sure his director of photography is annoyed about). He has also become quite proficient at using sudden, surprising, entries of “things” into the shot (along with loud noises) to jolt the viewer out of the comfort zone.
As mentioned before, the story is quite predictable, yet you still sit through the movie craving every new detail that dots the line from A to B. The film-within-a-film, is also used very effectively, not only as a plot device, but also to foreshadow the larger film itself. It is also worth waiting around during the end credits, as the film project the kids were working on (shot on Super 8 film, hence the name) is shown in its entirety.
Elle Fanning and Joel Courtney do a stellar job in the lead roles, and the supporting roles are also well-cast. In particular because none of the supporting actors, especially the adults, overshadow the kids. Towards the end, as all the loose ends are being tied up, some of the “resolutions” seem a little contrived. One also has to spend a significant part of the film getting over the minor technical detail of a small pickup truck derailing a train (although, for what it’s worth, the derailing scene is spectacular if overblown1). There are also other minor factual errors which you wouldn’t notice, the appearance of a Sony Walkman (before its time) and the mention of a Rubik’s cube (also before its time) and these don’t detract at all from the watchability of the film.
Overall, a predictable yet exciting, spectacular, and emotionally-involving film experience. I give it four stars out of five.
- If anyone is interested in what it really looks like when a train derails, somewhere in the second half of Lawrence of Arabia, a real train is derailed ↩