Hmmm, I wanted to like this movie. I was quite dismissive of J. J. Abrams from his previous films, then had to revise my opinion after I quite liked his Star Trek... Which was written by others. This was written by Abrams himself, and we're squarely back to his zone where a lot of stuff is really cool, but any emotional center is strictly rote, and ultimately there's just not that much there at the center.
This is produced by Steven Spielberg, and may be the first movie to be an open homage (as opposed to just appropriating his technique without credit). The whole thing harks back to the famous Spielberg films of the 80s, with its focus on a group of appealing kids dealing with an amazing situation, and several of the films beats come directly from Spielberg. Track in on characters gazing upwards in a state of wonder. Leave an open space at the side of the frame where you know something will happen. Drop the energy of the film momentarily so that something jolting can happen. Not to mention several beats appropriated directly from certain films, so you're sitting there going "Oh, that's from Close Encounters. Okay, that's War of the Worlds. Close Encounters again. E.T. Poltergeist now. Back to Close Encounters..." Which can keep you in a state of mind where you're thinking more about Spielberg's films than the one you're watching.
We open at the funeral of the main character's mother. Joe is an adorable, smart Spielberg hero, with ye olde emotionally-distant dad who is suddenly in charge of this kid, but doesn't know how to relate to him. Then we abruptly fast-forward four months, when the story proper begins (we couldn't have just learned that Joe's mother died recently?). Joe is involved in helping his friend make a zombie movie for entry in a regional film festival. The friends are a generic charming Spielbergian lot, the charming nerd, the pyro nerd, the over serious actor nerd, etc. They bring in Alice as an actor, who Joe has a crush on--such a crush it's questionable whether a character of his age would be so unconflicted about. They sneak out of the house one night to film a scene at the local train station. There's a big train crash! Something escapes! And the movie camera was still running--did it capture some shocking secret that will change the course of these characters' lives forever?
Nope. Pretty much not. The movie goes on, weird things happen, dogs flee town, the military comes in and there seems to be a big cover up, blah, blah, blah. We get lots more of those cute kids, adolescent romance, preteen fights among friends, lots of adventure and eventually lots of emotional catharsis, dad coming to respect his son, son standing up to dad, son finding something worth fighting for, going to save the girl, and finally the big reveal of what's going on and that old patented sense of wonder. It's very much a carbon copy of those early Spielberg movies, with all of the aforementioned things being spun out naturally from the fantastic story taking place at its center. Which becomes exactly the problem here--there's no story at the center.
SPOILERS > > >
Okay, I don't know why there has been such secrecy surrounding what this movie is about, because it turns out to be exactly what you think it will be, and nothing more. Nevertheless, this is your last chance to skip out of the spoilers if you really don't want what you already suspect confirmed.
Okay, so did it look from the trailer like there's some kind of monster in that train? You got it. And did you suspect that this monster might turn out to be some sort of alien? Right again. Well there ya go, thanks so much for coming. Turns out the alien has been being held by the air force for quite some time, and at first it was all friendly and free cappuccinos for everyone, but then MANKIND (evil, evil mankind! And that old military, we know they're never anything but evil) was mean to it and wouldn't let it play in any reindeer games, and the beastie developed a BAD ATTITUDE! Then the kindly professor who is the only one who understood and cared for the creature purposely crashed his truck into the train to set the alien free! So the alien is totally like, so misunderstood, but would be super-duper nice to humans... Oh, except he also eats them. I mean, he WOULD be super nice, really the nicest alien you've ever met, except that he, you know, eats humans. But that's probably only because people were mean to him.
So it all goes on, and then, after Joe has matured as a person and his dad has come to respect him and we're ready for the movie to end, the alien just assembles his ship and flies away. The end. And then you, like me, might be sitting there like--Well then why didn't he just do that IN THE FIRST PLACE!? What was he waiting for? Waiting for little Joey to have his emotional catharsis? Or did the alien need little Joey's sage words of Oprah-lite wisdom, about how "bad things happen"--you think I'm kidding, but I'm REALLY not--before he believed in himself enough to fly away? If one of you knows the reason the alien couldn't have just left at ANY TIME--and don't tell me it's because the military has all his magical Lego blocks, because he gets them back easily enough--then I'm certainly eager to hear it.
< < < SPOILERS END
I suspect that Abrams would say that's not the point, but the human story with the kids and dads and girlfriends and cliches is. I can buy that, but what he's not getting is that the background story has to be SOLID enough that you stop thinking about it and focus on the foreground elements. Here's where he does himself a bit of a disservice in setting this all up as such a mystery, because the revelation can do little but disappoint, as well as making you feel like a chump for believing there might actually be something surprising about it. He also shouldn't be quite so cavalier in comparing himself to Spielberg. And then when... Well, when the ending happens, a valid reaction might be "So then why the hell did I have to sit through all that?" Which I don't think is the reaction they were going for.
A few other things. Given the setup, you might expect that the footage caught on the film that recorded the crash is going to have some significance to the story, right? Or even, you know, kind of matter at all? In some small way? Well, just goes to show how Abrams defies convention. There is a funny moment when one of the characters is stoned out of his mind, and one of the kids is heard to wail what it seems parents' groups want them to say: "Drugs are so bad!"
So all that said, was it a bad time at the movies? Not necessarily, it's not much more disappointing than most movies, and it moves swiftly and has lots of blinking lights. But the best it can be, given what it sets out to be, is a pale copy of Spielberg, and its unfortunate that Abrams, in making a film written by himself and from his own imagination, has to once more affirm that his imagination is entirely borrowed from other, more inspired sources.
If you have time to kill.