*As a note to all three of you who will read this, I will TRY to keep this as spoiler-free as possible, but read at your own risk, since to is hard to review this film without keeping out some major details and plot-points.
**By "TRY", I mean I won't.
JJ Abrams has (arguably) crafted a few of the best television series of the current generation, and love him or hate him, he's reaching for the skies on the big screen. Super 8 isn't his directorial debut (that title belongs to Mission Impossible: 3), but it is clearly his most ambitious to date. Both MI: 3 and his re-invisioned Star Trek were both his attempts at already existing and widely popular properties. Super 8 is Abrams' first attempt at creating something entirely original, born from his own mind. However, it is impossible to watch Super 8 and not give credit to Steven Spielberg. Because besides actually producing the film, it is very heavily influenced by Spielberg's previous work, particularly his earlier extraterrestrial films. It's no secret that Abrams dreams of being the next Spielberg, and Super 8 is living proof of that.
Forward a few months later to summertime, and we learn that Joe and his buddies are heavily into filmmaking, and are in the middle of making a zombie movie. After much set-up and character bonding, we are introduced to the love interest, Alice (Elle Fanning, probably the only kid actor who isn't a newcomer). She is also the daughter of the man who Joe's father blames for his mother's death. It is while they are making their movie when things begin to take a "Spielbergy" turn, and a truck collides head-on with a freight train, resulting in a spectacular explosion. Not only does the gang find that their Biology teacher teacher was driving the truck, but he threatens them with a gun and tells them not to tell anyone what they saw. They scream and run (this really reminded me of The Goonies).
The rest of the film, at least until the end of the third act, is mostly the kids trying to live their lives while the Government tries to conceal the secret of strange disappearances and sightings around the local town since the train wreck. Joe and Alice fall in love, much to the disapproval of their feuding fathers, and they continue to shoot their movie, taking advantage of the unique sets they are able to acquire, thanks to the creature making a mess around town ("Production value!") They will occasionally investigate and ask questions about why tanks are rolling around in their backyards, but for the most part, they continue to try to move on with other things. We are occasionally interrupted by watching innocent people get taken away by the monster, with a formulaic "watching-dumb-people-who-have-nothing-to-do-with-the-story-get-stalked-and-taken-away-by-the-evil-monster" scene that is seen in most horror films. You know, that one (but PG-13). This is OK the first time, to get a taste of what the monster is capable of, but it does so on multiple and unnecessary occasions that don't contribute much to the story other than cheap scares.
It isn't until the creature abducts Alice when Joe decides to get involved and save her, and things begin to get a little over-the-top. His dad is captured by the Military, but he knocks out an unsuspecting soldier, uses a uniform for disguise, and steals a Jeep. The kids run through their neighborhood that has been torn apart by tanks and explosions as a battlefield (even though the town has been evacuated), narrowly escaping an attack from the monster. Joe figures out where the monster's "lair" is, so out of love, he invades it to save Alice. Joe finds Alice alive, and they nearly escape before the monster finds them. Before killing Joe however, Joe talks to the monster, giving him words of wisdom. It concedes and puts him down, letting him and Alice live, and builds his ship several minutes later and and leaving the planet forever.
While the film, especially the ending, seems very "by the books" at times, it is difficult to disagree that Abrams has a special touch, very much like his mentor, and when he uses it, it is very effective and mesmerizing. While at first I was let down by the "everything turned out better than expected" ending, I realized that Super 8 isn't a combination of E.T. and Cloverfield, as the trailers seemed to suggest, nor is it really an extraterrestrial movie at all. What makes Super 8 unique, is that it actually is a coming-of-age story, as well as a love story. A horrific monster just happens to show up in the middle of it, and is only another obstacle for the protagonist to overcome to achieve his goal of attaining a respectable relationship with his father, and to hold Alice's hand. At the same time, it is just a blast to watch. This is what makes Spielberg's films so special. He mastered the art of overlaying different genres together in a way that makes it indescribably it's own. Abrams has yet to master it, but he is damn close.