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If Super 8 were set in the present, its E.T. would likely want to Skype home. But so what if J.J. Abrams (the second “J” is for Spielberg Jr.) wears his influence on his celluloid? Super 8 is enough of a homage that you can’t help but notice it but not so blatant that it ruins what’s from start to finish an exhilarating summer ride.

The film revolves around the making of one back in the summer of ’79. Tubby prepubescent director Charles (Riley Griffiths) wants his zombie flick to be “mint,” so he employs/bullies his friends, including wounded special effects/makeup kid Joe (Joel Courtney) and mouthy explosives expert Cary (Ryan Lee) for help. He even asks the school hottie, Alice (Elle Fanning, turning into a terrific little actress), to play a role, which she does with such expertise it’s not only her looks that leaves the boys’ mouths agape.

One night when they’re filming at a railroad station (for “production value”), they witness a spectacular train crash. (Truly. See the movie in a theater with a good sound system.) After that, weird things start happening—-dogs and car motors are disappearing, everyone’s electricity goes out, the sheriff vanishes. Charles videotapes something otherworldly that night, but, being the ’70s, it’s a couple of days before he and the gang can see the film. There’s the pileup, and then there are tentacles. Whoa.

Super 8 proceeds similarly to Cloverfield, showing only glimpses of the monster and hints about what it’s all about before we get a good look at the thing toward the end. Unlike Cloverfield, however, there’s no this-is-really-happening! found-footage conceit—-and guess what, the film is better for it. Super 8‘s success rests largely on the charm of its young actors—-humor’s as prevalent in the script as terror—-and tight storytelling, the plot revealed drop by drop until its Spielbergian climax. That ending is, admittedly, a bit of a limp cherry. But everything that comes before it is mint.