In this age of post-modern complexities and increasingly dark film franchises it is refreshing to find a film that lights up the screen like this (quite literally thanks to JJ’s amateurish blocking). It is a homage yes, but it is never a quest to include the most callbacks like many other modern movies are (like, say Paul was), instead it embraces the genre and tries its darndest to emulate the spirit that it once held, it’s almost as if it seriously wants to be included as part of that old gang. And yes it is a modernization of the genre (despite the distinctly un-stylised seventies period in which it is set), it does delve into somewhat darker territory than such a film may have were it an original member (the on-screen violence and swearing was a little unexpected; interesting that both of this fortnights blockbusters have utilized the PG13 one fuck rule) but these moments are exceptions in a film that otherwise evokes only innocence and wonder in a way that we have not seen in a very, very long time.
Though the story ticks all the Spielbergian boxes it does it in a way that never comes across as impersonation. Yes the focus is on single parent families in the middle-class American mid-west, yes the father is driven to the point of distraction by the films events, yes there is an appearance by a mysterious Extra-Terrestrial, yes the big-bad government intervenes and yes everyone gets everywhere by bicycle, but no this is not simply derivation, there is an original story being told here within the medium of reminiscing on these movies.
Though not only is the story original, it is also very interesting and very well-written (for the most part) and would work separate to any knowledge of its roots. The characters are all inherently charismatic in their own way and they have your eyes hooked to the screen before the official hook of the train-crash and its mysteries is introduced; the credit for this should also go to all the child actors and Kyle ‘Coach’ Chandler, all of whom are magnificent in their roles (and must have had magnificent fun making the movie).
Though the slow reveal of the apparent ‘mystery’ throughout the movie feels well handled in the moment – the sight of camouflage trucks rolling through the Main St. and the sound of civilians all pleading for information about their stolen machinery are some of the remarkably ominous moments in what is a remarkably ominous movie – but in retrospect they come off as a little anti-climactic thanks mostly to an overly loose third act in which the movie makes to cash in on all the suspense it had previously establishes.
JJ Abrams of all people should know by now the danger of giving answers – in fact it appears to be a topic very close to his heart as his discussion of ‘The Mystery Box’ will attest – and so it surprising to see that this is the one area where the film falls apart. Given what precedes it such a finale needs to either provide an epic pay-off or maintain the mystery so that we, the audience, can concoct for ourselves a suitable solution; instead though he attempts here to straddle the fence and so it is that the climax ends up splintered.
Showing us the alien is not something that I am inherently against but if you are going to reveal something that you have worked so hard to keep hidden for two hours then you need to make an event out of it, this slow reveal was an admirable idea but it lacked a lot of punch. On the other hand the revelation that the alien was not the cute and cuddly kind or the blood-thirsty primitive kind did have a powerful effect and worked to separate this film from a lot of the efforts it was inspired by. We were not forced to befriend the beast, though it would have been so easy to Kong him given how inherently evil the Military were; and given that it kills and eats people Alien-ing the alien would have been just as easy, but by giving it sentience they Humaned him (and that is both a compliment and an insult) and this took the film into a much more interesting grey area, though it is an area that thee choose not to explore.
(Side-Note: Yes it eats people but people eat lambs and it’s not as if we ever fail to sympathize with human characters if they are seen on-screen eating meat. The consumption of flesh does not separate a species from sentience, though feeling that what it did is inherently worse than what we do is a sign that you may be evolving away from such self-awareness.)
Unfourtunately the military get no such re-invention; they are the bumbling, brutal and bureaucratic bad guys of Spielberg’s films only here they are delivered as flat as an industrial accident victim. There isn’t even any real attempt at shaping them into arch villains or an actual hindrance despite their obvious capability to play such a role. No, they’re just painted onto the set walls for decoration.
It may well sound like I am being overly critical but know that these things only stand-out so much because they are what separates this movie from being a masterpiece. Like LOST there are a lot of mythology issues here – contradictions, dead-ends, anti-climaxes and wasted opportunities– but these are more than redeemed by the character moments; it is as Charles -one of the kids- says, if you have a connection to these people on the screen then you care about what happens to them, so even if the plot does get a little muddled, by that stage we are already along for the ride and our stake is long since cemented in.
The mythology does serve its purpose however, In that it takes these otherwise banal character beats and transcends them onto the stage of sublimity; Meeting someone new on a plane is always going to be a lot less powerful than meeting someone new on a desert island after your plane has crashed. Though I still can’t help but feel like those final moments were from another movie entirely, so compelling are these characters that the alien almost feels unnecessary, I felt like saying ‘Yes, you have production values. Can we go back to the kids now?’ So it is a leaky cycle but one that does reciprocate when it can.
Is this E.T.? Is it Close Encounters? No, but there are times when it feels even better, feels like what I imagine those films would have back when they were fresh and new and really that is all that the film set out to do, so to my eyes it is a success despite its imperfections. And who knows what the future will hold, I mean it’s not like Close Encounters came out perfect the first time, perhaps there will be an Expanded Edition one day that will elevate this to its full potential. To help pass the time until then though I recommend seeing Super 8, because as it stands it is still a very good film.