Too much devotion to the works of Steven Spielberg and an uncertainty about whether this wants to be for kids or adults eventually doom this one to a middle-ground, where I suspect only those around the age of the central characters might truly get it. I guess this should include me, as it's centered on Joe Lamb (Courtney), who like myself, was a 13-year old in 1979, when this takes place. His life was unproblematic, up until the death of his mother in a nasty accident at the local steel mill. He's now recovering, emotionally, and ploughing his energies into working on a zombie film made by friend Charles Kaznyk (Griffiths), starring another schoolmate, Alice (Fanning). While shooting at a train station, they witness a horrific crash caused by one of their schoolteachers. The military come in immediately and clamp a lid on things, but the neighbourhood is plagued by an increasing number of mysterious incidents, disappearances and deaths. Joe and his friends gradually realize that something was being transported in the train - something which is now roaming the local area.
So, is the monster friendly or dangerous? It's both, and it's this refusal to go into either The Thing or E.T schools of thought with regard to aliens escaping on Earth, that eventualy damns it. It neither tugs on your heartstrings, nor provokes any kind of visceral response. You can pretty much tell where the film is going, with the only surprise showing up in the end credits. It also ends up being too self-referential, with its young movie-makers apparently Abrams re-living his childhood, in extended scenes that are pleasant enough, yet have little or no bearing on the overall direction of the story. I wanted something closer to Cloverfield than Stand By Me, and certainly expected it from the trailer; while this does have aspects of both, it certainly skews heavily towards the latter. While it does succeed in evoking a bygone era, the kid performances are good, and I admit to feeling a good deal of cultural resonance, the cinematic tricks and approach of that time are no longer effective. For instance, Abrams' obsession with lens flares now seems irritating more than anything. HE would have been better off acknowledging that the era in question is indeed bygone, and mostly for good reason.