As the story goes, J.J. Abrams had two ideas going into the infantile stages of Super 8: a movie about kids in the late 1970s making a horror flick on a store-bought Super 8 camera, and an all-out creature feature. Ultimately, the Lost co-creator, and director of 2009’s hit Star Trek reboot, settled upon a marriage of the two concepts, with his idol, Steven Spielberg, on board as a producer and on-set consultant.

That last job description for Spielberg is key; Super 8, in addition to being an amalgamation of a kids movie and a sci-fi monster mash, is an unsubtle homage to the old blockbusters produced by Sir Steven’s Amblin Entertainment imprint back in the late ’70s and early 1980s, films like E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, The Goonies, and Close Encounters Of The Third Kind.

complex-review-super-8-insert-1Throughout Super 8, it’s easy to tell just how calculated of a tribute to Spielbergian wonderment Abrams’ film really is, an unshakable aesthetic that doesn’t ruin the movie, but certainly distracts at times from the overall impact. Written with tons of heart and an admirable desire to inspire both awe and touching emotion, Abrams’ script is an entertaining thrill ride that’s quick to pause the sentimentality and jump right into intense, monster-rific setpieces. Which is also its main problem: Abrams handles the character moments so well that each of the many action sequences feel like interferences.

By the film’s end, it’s clear that Abrams should’ve saved the creature feature idea for a later movie, or remember that he already produced a strong one in 2008, called Cloverfield. Had he decided to fully flesh out the “kids making a movie” concept into a full-length movie, Super 8 could’ve been a cinematic marvel; as it stands, it’s a deftly executed sci-fi pic that’s too much fun to viciously dissect, yet also too meticulously crafted in its intention to induce the nostalgia that would leave one floored. In a summer climate overflowing with sequels and superhero adaptations, though, Abrams’ original story and noble efforts are a welcome diversion.

Imagine If The Goonies Took A Field Trip To Cloverfield

Like the best of old Spielberg movies, Super 8 centers on kid characters forced to contend with extraordinary, beyond adult circumstances; in this case, it’s a mysterious presence that engulfs their small Ohio steel town in inexplicable phenomena. All of the local dogs run far, far away; electronic devices and power lines disappear; and, before long, residents themselves start vanishing. The strangeness begins after the kids find themselves within a massive railroad accident, during which some kind of large monstrosity breaks out of a cart and hauls ass into town.

The kids capture the train-break on camera, thanks to their tireless attempt to complete a zombie movie called The Case, directed by a determined Ed Wood-type, Charles (Riley Griffith). His crew consists of his best friends: There’s makeup effects specialist Joe (Joel Courtney), Super 8’s lead; reluctant star Martin (Gabriel Basso); camera operator Preston (Zach Mills); lead zombie actor, and constant wisecracker, Cary (Ryan Lee); and little Meryl-Streep-in-training Alice, played with dynamite skills by Elle Fanning.

The scenes in which the kids shoot their movie, talk about their movie, and interact without any otherworldly distractions are Super 8’s best bits. Each of the young actors is impressive, able to riff off of those around them with a naturalistic spirit that makes their moments together feel less like youngsters acting and more like a group of youths hanging out.

The performances from Courtney and Fanning, however, are on another level. As the sympathetic hero Joe, first-time actor Courtney is tasked with a multitude of character demands: he has to play emotionally scarred (Joe’s mother recently died in a steel mill accident, and his relationship with pops, played by Friday Night Lights star Kyle Chandler is non-existent), innocently infatuated (Joe has a huge crush on Alice), and believably heroic. And Courtney nails all of the role’s facets with likeable earnestness.

Courtney’s toughest scene involves Joe and Alice bonding over old home videos of Joe’s deceased mom, a gripping moment that turns into the Elle Fanning Show, much like the majority of Super 8 as a whole. Given two weighty monologues, the first of which is spoken through her zombie-movie-within-the-movie character’s voice, the 13-year-old (!) actress provides glimpses into what’s sure to be an award-worthy career as she matures and enters the legal age frame. Hopefully she avoids the Lindsay Lohan path to image destruction, because, as evidenced throughout Super 8, Fanning is a marvelous little thespian.

Anchored by the notable talents of Courtney and Fanning, Super 8’s quieter character-driven portions are knockouts, whether of the heart-tugging variety or simply fashioned to trigger some laughs.

Super 8 Packs Some Tense Action, But Did It Really Need To?

Unlike the classic Spielberg movies of yesteryear, Super 8 is sporadically ultra-violent, taking the family-friendly vibe of E.T. and Close Encounters into much darker places. Whenever the film’s inhuman antagonist pops up, the attacks are pretty vicious, particularly an assault on an Air Force bus complete with blood spattering on glass and people being yanked through shattered windows. Abrams shows an unexpected knack for marginally terrifying scares, pulse-pounders aided considerably by a monster that’s left unseen for the movie’s first two acts.

complex-review-super-8-insert-2The creature, somehow left hidden from all of the film’s marketing (posters, still, trailers, commercials), is eventually shown in wide-lens focus, and it turns out to be [SPOILER ALERT] an alien knockoff of the far superior Cloverfield monster cross-bred with a spider and given the breathing patterns of Mr. Ed. Fortunately, Abrams pads it with an intriguing and layered, though only skimmed for dramatic potential, back-story, drawing thin parallels of loneliness between the humongous space-beast and protagonist Joe.

Emphasis on the word “thin.” Joe, as a character, is quite dense and afforded a great deal of room to resonate emotionally; the arc of the film’s bad thing (not “guy”), on the other hand, is rushed and minute. Thus, the conclusion of Super 8, which attempts to channel some of that boy-meets-alien sappiness from E.T., doesn’t feel earned—it’s just another obvious wink toward Spielberg.

Furthermore, it serves as a reminder that Abrams pays too much mind to the fantastic elements here, detracting from his ability to flesh out rich characters by all-too-frequently focusing on the prerequisite “monster movie” aspects.

J.J. Abrams Wants You To Adore Cinema As Much As He Does, And That’s Not A Bad Thing

Super 8 is problematic, yes, but it’s also soaked with a palpable amount of cinematic appreciation and love for film’s magical powers. The end credits sequence, specifically, plays like endearing propaganda to get kids interested in filmmaking; as the crew’s names scroll by, we’re greeted with The Case, the homemade zombie movie at the heart of Super 8, in its entirety, and it’s alternately funny, amateurish, and imaginative—everything it should be, really.

In a larger sense, Super 8 itself is Abrams’ own piece of harmless propaganda, designed to make us want to revisit the movies he loved as a kid while reminding viewers that summer blockbusters can surge with poignancy even when the effects and action are super pricey. That’s how Spielberg used to do it, and, sadly, that’s not how most, if any, big-budget directors operate today.

So here’s to Abrams getting the chance to exercise his heartfelt-popcorn-flick muscles some more, post-Super 8. Hopefully next time, though, he’ll stick to one script, preferably one that’s not repeatedly sidetracked by intergalactic monsters.