You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you
were aliens in the land of Egypt.
If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.
From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way.
2 Corinthians 5:16
Writer/director J.J. Abrams’ hit film is a blend of mystery and youthful friendship in the guise of a sci-fi horror film. If it seems like an early Stephen Spielberg film, this is no accident, Abrams being a fervent admirer of the man who became his mentor when he was a teenager still making Super 8mm films—and the creator of Close Encounters is the producer of Super 8. (Talk about a dream come true!)
The film begins in 1979 at a small Ohio town steel factory where a worker is taking down the numbers from a sign that had announced it has been 700+ days since an accident, replacing them with a “1.” We learn that the accidental death was that of the wife of Jackson Lamb (Kyle Chandler) and the mother of 14 year-old Joe (Joel Courtney).
Since the accident Joe has not gotten along well with his dad, the local Deputy Sheriff. Dad is not happy that Joe spends so much time with his pals making a zombie super 8 movie that they plan to enter into a film festival in Cleveland. Charles (Riley Griffiths) is the director, Joe is the make up and special effects man, and Cary (Ryan Lee), who loves playing with fireworks, provides any needed explosions and fires. After rewriting the script to include a wife, Charles has secured Alice Dainard (Elle Fanning) for the part. She is two years older than the boys, and so has agreed to drive them to the old train station for a late night shoot.
When she arrives to pick up the boys she refuses to allow Joe into the car because, as the Deputy’s son, she fears that he will reveal that she is driving without a license. He promises not to tell, so he climbs in, along with Charles and the other crewmembers, Cary (Ryan Lee), Preston (Zach Mills), and Martin (Gabriel Basso). During the rehearsal Alice’s performance is so moving that the boys are awestruck, and Joe has fallen in love. Then as they hear a train approaching, Charles, wanting to include the train in the scene for “production values,” orders the camera to roll. The train thunders by, and as Joe turns to watch it, he sees a white pickup truck pull onto the track in its path, causing a massive wreck. Dropping the camera to the platform, the kids run for their lives as exploding pieces of the wreckage cascades about them. Joe picks up one of the thousands of white cubes that fall out of a smashed boxcar. When the debris has settled, they approach the smashed truck and discover the body of Dr. Woodward (Glynn Turman), a science teacher. Joe finds a map, and then the teacher comes to life, warning the kids not to tell anyone about this or they will die. Hearing the distant sound of men approaching, the group piles into the car, and Alice drives them away.
Equally strange events follow. The sheriff, stopping to buy gas one night, disappears, along with the convenience store clerk. Deputy Jackson is now in charge, and is met by a series of mysteries. The dogs of the town have disappeared. Also lots of electrical parts, including all those from cars at auto dealerships. The relationship between Jackson and Joe deteriorates, with the son refusing to attend the baseball camp to which his father wants to send him. The boy also cannot see why he should stay away from Alice, though we do learn the father’s order has something to do with Jackson’s blaming Alice’s alcoholic father Louis Dainard (Ron Eldard) for the death of his wife at the mill.
After a wait of three days to have their roll of film developed (this is delightfully emphasized, no doubt to contrast with today’s instant gratification met by video), the filmmakers see that the camera had kept running after it was dropped, and they see a spidery creature leave one of the wrecked train cars. The Army has moved into town and their arrogant leader General Nelec (Noah Emmerich), assuring Deputy Jackson that there is no danger, refuses to reveal anything else to him. Indeed, later, when Jackson meets the soldier, the General orders his arrest. Finally the entire population is ordered to evacuate the town.
There is much more, the director building up suspense by not showing more than a glimpse of the alien until well into the film. This works well, but then it would have been better had more been shown of the subterranean creature, such as in E.T., to which this film owes so much, so that we might have been able to empathize with the creature that basically wants to be able to return to its home and has been abused earlier when the military had held it captive. In the confrontation scene in which Joe shows the courage that would have made his father proud, we would better have understood the reaction of what hitherto we have been led to believe was a horrible monster.
The spectacular finale harks back to the climax of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, as did earlier, the scenes showing the intransigence of the military and their rough shod take over of the town. This would be a good film for the whole family but for the unnecessary insertion of the “F” word into one scene. The twist that brought to mind the above Biblical passages, lift this above the usual aliens invade the earth genre, J.J. Abrams’ film joining with Neill Blomkamp (District 9) in suggesting that we might be part of the problem, or as Walt Kelly’s Pogo put it, “We have met the enemy and he is us!” By the way, do stay for the end credits, lest you miss the final version of the gang’s Super 8 film—it’s a hoot!