tl;dr Highly enjoyable, well made and more than a little bit cheesy. This is a story for the kid inside you and it's damn effective one at that.
Super 8 is my first experience with J.J. Abrams, despite Lost practically being a cultural staple, and I have to confess to being impressed. From the start it proves itself as a movie that understands filmmaking, delivering an opening that speaks far louder without words than it could with exposition. Meet 14-year old Joe: his mum is dead and his dad is struggling to cope. As he is filming a film with a bunch of his friends they witness a train derailment, and it turns out that the train's cargo is rather unusual.
Having a young cast is always something of a gamble, as they have been known to be harder to direct and not so developed as actors. Super 8 has a terrific cast, however, and having the main characters children in a movie that seems more aimed towards not children of that demographic, but more of the older people who remember when these type of movies were the blockbusters. It's a love letter to those Spielbergian romps and an appeal to the child in the viewer. If the viewer already happens to be a child, then all the better.
Whilst pretty much everything here is a direct appeal to cliches, there's also a knowingness to it that leads to a few moments of deconstruction. Abram is willing to play around with them just as he is willing to evoke them. It's hard not to get won over by the earnestness of the film's set pieces. The writing is fairly tight, although Joe's personal story and the alien hijinks feel like they never properly come together. At the end it feels like there are two distinct threads where there should have been an intertwining of both. It's the main problem this otherwise solid film has.
Perhaps the characters feel a little bit played out, and perhaps the there is not as much thematic tidiness as would be preferable, but Super 8 is certainly one of the best cinematic outings I've experienced all year. It's earnest excitement, evokation of childhood and adept execution lead to a very compelling end product. Recommended.