"Do not speak of this. If you do, they will find you."
This movie is a mix of ET, CLOVERFIELD, and THE THING. From the kids making their way through a huge event involving an alien, an alien that looks like the non-union Mexican equivalent of the Cloverfield monster, to the alien making an ad-hoc spaceship to escape the Earth. At a meta-level it's like The Thing in that it incorporates so many things to become one amalgam, but it doesn't quite pull it off.
I'd say that the emperor has no clothes, but there's a lot to this to like. Oh, and there really is no mystery. Abrams needs to stop doing that. If this is a little disjointed, it's because I just saw it and I'm kinda tired. I can delve deeper if anyone's interested.
The worst aspect of the film is that it tries to do too much, and as a result things don't get fully explored and don't gel together at the end. It's the story of a young boy who is on the cusp of, not so much adulthood, but growing up. He experiences what feels like his first love/crush, has to deal with the loss of a parent, in this case the mother he was much closer to than the father, and an alien invasion. The thing is that the alien invasion feels ancillary at times to the story of the kid, Joe Lamb, but they intersect in what is supposed to be some type of cinematic parallel I suppose. But they don't really connect the events so much, since it's played like a monster movie, or rather like JAWS. It makes the end not quite work, but I'll deal with that later.
The film has a group of kids making a zombie (of course) movie. The train crash from the trailer, the subsequent military invasion/containment of the situation provides "production value" as a backdrop for the this kid's Super 8 flick. But as the stories intersect more and more, the kids get more and more drawn into dealing with the alien. For the most part, quite a bit of this work. Elle Fanning is pretty damn awesome in this, and the kid playing Joe does well with the kid who's kinda just there, but grows as he deals with this new girl in his life as well as having to deal with what he wants in life while dealing with the death of his mother and a distant father. To note, in the group of friends he is not the leader. The husky kid is the leader, he's the makeup guy, he makes things look good, but he's not the center. He grows, partly as a result of Alice, the girl, and ends up taking off to rescue her when she gets captured by Juan Cloverfieldo. The journey is mostly good, or at least worthwhile. But it can feel shoehorned into it, or at least the the other stuff is shoehorned in.
And therein lies the problem. We get a good amount of the kids, though there are too many to get invested in all of them, not to mention the death of the parent subplot. As a result, the whole alien aspect feels much more of a set piece generator/plot instigator than something that causes the characters to react to and develop at times. We're supposed to have some empathy for this thing, but like the Cloverfield monster, it's more seen at the sides than a character itself. ET, for instance, made ET a central character so when ET was dying we felt more for it because we've been following it's journey throughout the movie. Either the kids should have been streamlined, or the character subplots should have been. The death of the mother ends up not being all that important, and just kinda exists to be pointed out at certain times.
Also, the alien in this is a monster, until it's not.
As a result some of the character resolutions feel forced. Joe dealing with the death of a parent, as well as what seems like a loss of faith in parental authority doesn't parallel so much to why the alien shouldn't just try to kill everything. To note, the alien was captured, maybe the Roswell thing (I'm not really sure), and tortured and examined to figure out it and its tech. Like the alien in The Thing, it wants to leave and is building a jury-rigged ship to escape. It kills some random people as well as the Air Force guys sent to reclaim. Joe insists, to the creature in the only real scene in which they interact, that not all people are bad. Which is something I guess he kinda learned growing up so quick?
This confrontation occurs because the alien grabs Alice, and Joe and his friends go after her. They face malfunctioning military tech with tanks going off and machine gun fire as they make the journey to the alien's lair. Joe, being more of a leader, insists on going after Alice. So I guess he's growing up, and taking a stand, even against the "adults" who aren't always right or just don't understand. Kyle Chandler does pretty well as the distant father, and does make the father figure that could easily come off as a jerk feel more like someone thrown into a situation that he's not prepared for.
By the way, one of the kids should have died. There's a tank blowing a hole through a wall they're standing next to and the worst thing that happens is one kid's leg gets busted up. Weird stakes since the rest of it feels fairly real. This ain't the Fratellis.
Anyway, the alien decides not to kill anymore people , despite it eating people before, and leaves in his magical spaceship because Joe convinces him that not everyone is bad. They're just human I guess, doing their best, like Joe's father, Coach Tyler. Seriously though, the end of the movie feels like JJ Abrams thought that it was running long and needed to shorten the ending. It's like macro-level nanotech spaceship magic. Everyone learns something about each other, and are able to accept the flaws in others. But the alien. I'm supposed to feel for this alien, but it's portrayed offscreen as a monster for the most part. It also goes into its character. It runs around naked and yells a lot and kills people, even though it had a spaceship and is smart enough to jury-rig another.
At least ET could talk and get drunk.
Still, I liked the kids for the most part, even though they should have dropped one or two to develop the others. And the cast is all pretty good, even the kids who usually suffer the most in these types of movies. The film drags because of jumping to too many plots, but the characters carry it well for the most part.
It's a Spielberg movie made by people that didn't know what exactly made a Spielberg movie work. If you make a kids' nostalgia Goonies Monster Squad movie, you can't put in Jaws as the alien and expect there not to be any seams. The monster/alien is a presence, but not a character. If it needs to be one, it should be that, but you can't jump back and forth.
I liked it, but it's not something that I see myself constantly revisiting as I would ET. Oh, and c'mon JJ, drop the lens flare. Seriously.