On its own terms, Super 8 is fine, undemanding entertainment of the kids-versus-monster variety - you know the sort; the adults are useless and/or disbelieving, the kids plucky and rebellious within certain adorable preset parameters. They're not too goody-two shoes, but nor are they hooded hoodlums. It's all rather lovely, looks nice, and features some stunning set pieces - the train scene of the first twenty minutes is as exciting an opening gambit as you'll see all year.
Super 8 also comes with a Movie Magic™ pedigree second to little else released in 2011. Steven Spielberg produces, and in this case that means proper creative endorsement, not one of those times when he 'executive produces' some Michael Bay piece of nonsense. The writer-director is JJ Abrams (who produced Star Trek/Cloverfield/Lost) so we're practically guaranteed memorable action and great build-up, even if the jury's out on whether (with the exception of Star Trek) he always ensures his properties know how to wrap up their narratives.
And yet. And yet. Super 8 is undeniably coasting on nostalgia for films like E.T., The Goonies, and even Stand By Me. This is all well and good - they're fantastic films - except that we already have those films to feel nostalgic about, if we so choose. Do we really want an I Love '80s Movies montage served up as a feature film? Many cinemagoers, judging by box-office receipts in the US, do indeed.
Maybe it's nostalgia for the type of childhood depicted in the film that is in fact the draw here. Very few people in the target audience for Super 8 will actually have run around with a plucky gang of like-minded neighbourhood scamps making their own little movie using the camera of the title, so it's not even that Abrams is selling our own past back to us - we're being asked to get misty-eyed about somebody else's past, an entirely weirder proposition. Love letters to bygone eras can be heartbreakingly beautiful things and have their place in cinema. But we should question how often we want to receive a love letter to an ex when we could be receiving a love letter written to us, the contemporary audience, and our own experiences; or, at a less navel-gazing level, cinema that moves things forward instead of wallowing in the good ol' days.
These are big-picture criticisms. Taken for what it is, as a standalone summer movie, Super 8 is an entertaining night out with more warmth than most and some wonderfully believable performances from a non-starry cast.