The ghost of Steven Spielberg’s E.T. seems to hover in the wings of J.J. Abrams’ latest sci-fi thriller (which is partly produced by the famous E.T. director). But dealing with alien life forms isn’t a stretch for Abrams who also called the shots for the 2009 space adventure Star Trek. Now he brings audiences a tale that’s a little closer to home.
In Ohio during the late 1970s, an aspiring adolescent filmmaker has cajoled his middle school friends (Ryan Lee, Zach Mills, Gabriel Basso, Joel Courtney) into helping him make a movie for the upcoming Cleveland Film Festival. Charles Kaznyk (Riley Griffiths) even persuades the pretty but reserved Alice Dainard (Elle Fanning) to play the female lead in the zombie flick.
Then after sneaking out one night in a stolen car operated by an unlicensed driver, the underage film crew witnesses a horrific train wreck and receives an ominous warning to keep quiet from a bloody victim of the accident.
Each of them deals differently with the aftermath of the incident. Some just want to forget it while Charles sees the smoldering debris as the perfect backdrop for his production. But Joe Lamb (Courtney) becomes curious about the train’s cargo after strange things begin happening around the small town of Lillian where his father Jack (Kyle Chandler) works as a sheriff’s deputy.
For viewers, Abram’s well-paced story captures the innocence and sincerity of these young characters and their lives in a small Midwestern town. The opening scene reveals that Joe’s mother has recently died in a job-related accident. Her death seems like it should have more impact on her son, yet for the most part it becomes a secondary storyline. The real thrust of the script focuses on the young friends as they carry on with their filmmaking efforts even as their town is inundated with tight-lipped military personnel who scour the streets in search of something.
Unfortunately, though this production is aimed at teens, it isn’t quite as innocent as that earlier extraterrestrial’s visit was. Along with the massive explosions and endless rounds of military ammunition are several scenes of bloody injuries and even death. When approached by a part-time drug pusher (David Gallagher), this group of young teens has the good sense to refuse an invitation to smoke pot. They aren’t, however, as good at controlling the almost constant stream of profanities that pour out of their mouths. While the language may be authentic to the time and situation, the dozens and dozens of scatological slang terms and other profanities are an unfortunate inclusion in a script that otherwise could be one of those rare, engaging action adventures for young audiences.