A slick and deliberately crafted throwback to the likes of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, The Goonies, The Thing, and other classic sci-fi romps of the late ’70s/early ’80s, Super 8 falls a little short of the greatness of its forefathers but still manages to be a refreshing nostalgia trip.

Set in the small town of Lillian, Ohio, circa 1979, the movie centers on young Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney), whose mother has recently died in an accident at the local steel mill. All he has left is his incresaingly remote father, Jack (Kyle Chandler), one of the town’s deputy sheriffs. Both have been shattered by their shared loss, but neither seems capable of talking about it.

Joe prefers to spend his time with his friends: bossy would be filmmaker Charles (Riley Griffiths), too-serious Martin (Gabriel Basso), nerdy Preston (Zach Mills), budding pyromaniac Cary (Ryan Lee), and love interest Alice (Elle Fanning), as they work on completing an amateur zombie movie in time to enter it into a film festival. (The title is a reference to the Super 8mm home movie camera and film format commonly used at the time.)

The group sneaks out one night to film at a train station and — in a sequence that manages the heretofore impossible task of one-upping The Fugitive — witnesses the derailment of an Air Force train carrying a mysterious cargo.

Soon after, the town is plagued by strange occurrences and a series of strange disappearances; soon after, the military arrives in force soon after, asking many questions but giving few answers in return.

The movie is a mash note from Abrams to the kind of movies that he (and so many of us, as well) grew up on, and no doubt influenced him. Though written and directed by J.J. Abrams (who never met a lens flare he didn’t like), producer Steven Spielberg’s influence is pervasive, from the tense father-son dynamic and ominous authority figures to the plucky ensemble of resourceful kids (each well-cast with talented young actors, most of them first-timers) and wide-eyed sense of wonder.

The filmmaking scenes are what anchors the film and drives a suprising amount of the narrative, as Charles and company (no doubt proxies for what Abrams and Spielberg must have been like in their youth) relentlessly work on their project until things really start going crash, splat, and kerblooey in the final act. The “movie within a movie”, which plays during the closing credits, is a hoot.

Still, Super 8 is ultimately an imitation of what came before, and occasionally it seems concious of that fact as it sometimes struggles to be both an homage and something original. Despite its bouts with “been there, done that” as a work of pop-art, it has just the right blend of humor, spectacle, suspense, and emotion.

Super 8 is showing at several theaters near us this weekend: NorthPark, Studio Movie Grill, Galaxy, Magnolia and Valley View.