JJ Abrams made his reputation with TV's Lost, whose early appeal rested on the threat posed by an unseen enemy. He does the same thing in Super 8, but sitting on his shoulder all the way through is producer Steven Spielberg, whom Abrams has quite obviously learned from, and is perhaps even paying homage to.
It is, at heart, a monster movie, set in 1979 in an Ohio steel town, where 13-year-old Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) and his friends are making a zombie movie in Super 8 format for a film competition.
While out filming one night, they witness a train crash (one of the biggest and noisiest depicted on the big screen since The Fugitive) that turns into something much bigger. The military is quickly swarming over the scene, and before long strange things start happening in the town, with machinery and people disappearing.
It's all something to do with a secret military project (of course), which has a sinister officer in charge (of course). For most of the film, the monster is unseen – a device used in Cloverfield, which Abrams produced – and it's a mark of Abrams' skill that he is able to tell an engaging story without it (but why do so many otherworldly creatures in the movies announce their arrival with flickering lights and other electrical disturbances?). The influence of Spielberg's early 1980s films ET and The Goonies, which also featured young friends having adventures with a fantasy edge, stands out loud and clear in the look and feel of Super 8, and even in the ending.
This is a movie centred around kids, where they have the best moments and deliver the best performances, and the adult characters don't quite match their depth. Impressive newcomer Joel Courtney, as Joe, conveys emotion effectively and without frills, and is matched by Elle Fanning as Alice, a fellow film-maker and the object of Joe's affections.
Super 8 has plenty of thrills, shocks and destruction, but the emotional element comes from smalltown lives and conflicts. Joe is still getting over the recent death of his mother, which is also affecting his dad, the local deputy sheriff (Kyle Chandler). Only at one point does a weepy moment threaten to derail the film's momentum – for the most part, they do what they need to before the story reverts to mystery and action.
Besides the homage to Spielberg, you also get the feeling that Abrams is paying homage to the 1970s of his youth, and he layers on the period detail, especially in the first 10 minutes – hit songs of the day, Walkmans, Three Mile Island, pageboy (for the boys) and Farrah Fawcett (for the girls) haircuts, and kids zipping around on BMX bikes.
And be sure to stick around for the credits to see if, after everything they've been through, Joe and his friends manage to finish their zombie epic.