Hurrah! A terrific summer fantasy blockbuster that's smart, funny, heartfelt, warmly nostalgic and beautifully crafted. In contrast to the amusing but disposable Captain America: The First Avenger and the thuddingly imbecilic Transformers 3, this is a thoroughly lovely film: a film in love with its period and in love with movies, rather than build-up and backstory for next year's ginormous box-office behemoth or a shrieking dollar-printing machine. And it's a film in love with movies in the best way: in love with the craft of making films rather than nerdy injokery. (Not that there's anything wrong with nerdy injokery.)
Super 8's primary comparison point has been with ET: The Extra-Terrestrial (Spielberg is one of the producers and it starts with the Amblin logo) but I think it's closer to The Goonies and Explorers. In the summer of 1979 a group of kids are making a goofy horror movie on super 8 home cine when they and their camera witness a devastating train crash. But just what kind of creature was on that train that required a hige Air Force cleanup team? Where has it gone, and what does it want?
It's not just for the nostalgia that the late 70s setting is a smart movie. It forbids the use of YouTube, email, Google and Skype, slowing the pace right down. And since it takes three days for the crucial reel of 8mm to be sent off and developed, the delay gives the human character and drama a chance to develop as well. That's an infinitely better balance than, say, Transformers 3's full-throttle tactics of throwing tons of exploding metal in your face for over two hours. It's also a much darker film than ET. For much of the time the alien is a significant threat and the authorities' reponse is far more aggressive and destructive (perhaps overly so in places; maybe I missed the reason given for blowing up half the town with tanks).
Criticism has been levelled on two particular fronts: firstly the supposed anachronisms which include mention of a Rubik's Cube that wasn't available until the following year, and why the kids are making a zombie movie anyway as surely they wouldn't really know about Night Of The Living Dead at that point (having said that, with the white eyes the zombie makeup actually looks more like The Evil Dead, which although a 1981 didn't come out to US cinemas until 1983). To be honest it really doesn't bother me: it's the sense of period rather than specific details. If someone had mentioned Adam Sandler or a MySpace page it would have been different. The other so-called problem is the use of lens flare, and frankly it's not a problem at all because they look great.
In fact the film as a whole looks great. And it is great. It's engaging, funny and charming, the characters are mostly likeable and the effects are terrific (the train wreck is a genuine jawdropper). Its love of film-making is genuinely warming (if anything lasting does come of Super 8, I hope it's that kids start making their own movies over their summer holidays) and as a bonus you get the kids' complete short film against the end credits. For me the only false note was the inclusion of a stoner character which just felt out of place. But generally I just loved the hell out of the movie and it's one of my favourites of the year so far.