How you see J.J. Abrams' Super 8 largely depends on how you react to its relationship with movies that already exist.
For some, the transparently Spielberg-ian qualities of the story — the sweet-faced boy pressed to rise to the occasion, the juxtaposition of wisecracking youth and authoritarian menace, and plenty more similarities that reveal themselves — make Super 8 a nicely executed retread. Why, this theory goes, would you watch a Steven-Spielberg-produced movie from 2011 that wants to be a Steven-Spielberg-directed movie from 1980 if you can just ... watch the one from 1980?
But for me, there was a deliberativeness to the mirroring going on in the story. Rather than trying and failing to become an old Spielberg movie, it succeeded in experimenting with some of the expectations of those movies and expanding on them by constantly meeting some expectations and subverting others. I didn't feel like I was seeing a knockoff as much as a very entertaining film that understands the traditions in which it exists enough to play with them very effectively.
There's a particular wit in the way the film handles suspense. Super 8 contains a good number of moments designed to make you jump out of your seat, and as all easily frightened moviegoers know, there are two ways to do those moments.
One is to torment the audience by playing into everything we know about the way that stillness warns of an impending surprise. This is what happens in a scary movie when some dumb fool with a flashlight walks into a darkened room and walks toward the camera, and the score goes quiet. You are being played with: something is about to happen. You are meant to know it and sit with it. "No no nooooooo, no no," you are meant to say. In other scenes, the obvious, unavoidable ominousness of a scene comes straight from the setup itself. Knowing these moments are coming because the movie is outright telegraphing them is often delicious. There was actually a moment in which I will admit that despite my general aversion to talking in movies, I took advantage of a noisy interlude to happily singsong-whisper to my seatmate, "I think there's gonna be trouble on the hiiiiiiiighway..."
The other is to have something happen completely out of nowhere, where the language of popular film is not used to warn you or to create anticipation. There's no anticipation — just reaction. Generally, a character is in the middle of a line when suddenly, with no cues, WHAM. (You might call the latter "the Samuel L. Jackson" if you've seen the right film.)
The difference between these two kinds of startle moments is the difference between executing a well-known rhythm and disrupting one, and a good maker of movies knows the value of both.
Super 8 divides its scares almost equally between the two types in a way that reflects its ability to combine classic, comforting filmmaking with things that feel unexpected.
For instance, the huge train crash that is practically the only thing Abrams was willing to give away in advance is, in one sense, a classic giant disaster. Explosions, running, fireballs — you know the drill.
But seen another way, it's quite inventive. It may not be plausible to your inner physics professor, but the crash ultimately becomes less about the explosions and more about the propulsion of heavy objects that just keep flying by and raining down with enormous and palpable weight — WHOMP! WHOMP! ooooooooWHOMP! It's a different way to approach it. What begins as a classic smash-up, not unlike one a kid might put in his version of a disaster movie using a toy train and a cherry bomb, becomes much more frightening because it's translated back out of the impersonal matter of a fireball filmed at a distance and into, essentially, being attacked by gravity.
I don't believe people can process a fireball as well as they can process a heavy object, and Super 8 uses its advanced effects not just to create more fire, but also to make it a crash not seen from above but experienced from within. It makes the crash an animal that can move, rather than a static setup.
For me, Super 8 felt thoughtfully, rather than disappointingly, familiar. It didn't play as unimaginative; on the contrary, it seemed like an especially thoughtful and loving reflection on the films it so obviously recalls. It's a bit of a cliche at this point to say a movie is really about our love of movies, but here, the plot involves kids who are in love with cinema and it takes place two years after Close Encounters (a movie they absolutely would have seen). This one really is about our love of movies.
It's about the fact that it's not a dirty little secret that popular film has much of its wiring in common; it's a tool. A good filmmaker can cross some of those wires and leave others as he finds them, so that some expectations are met and others are not. Some scares are delicious crescendos and others are just HEY LOOK OUT.
Watching Super 8 was one of the only times I can ever remember coming very close to saying, "Let's just stay and watch it again." And yes, it recalls not only the Spielberg movies of my youth, but also Stand By Me, and certainly It, and sometimes even To Kill A Mockingbird. Certainly, plot innovation is a lovely thing. I welcome a story I've never seen before — one that calls to mind nothing else. But there are watery rip-offs and then there are deft reworkings of classic ideas, and the next time I see Super 8 (spoiler alert: it will be soon), it will undoubtedly start to burrow into my head and create expectations of its own. And in 30 years, someone will play with those, too.