Let me begin by stating: I enjoyed Super 8 and highly recommend it. The movie has been billed as writer/director J.J. Abrams channeling executive producer Stephen Spielberg to tell a story about aliens, military secrets and adolescent kids in 1979. He and his collaborators succeed admirably.

While the filmmakers aren’t as deft at sentimentality as action, they mostly manage to go beyond expected clich├ęs and tell a moving, pulse-quickening tale. Kid leads Joel Courtney and Elle Fanning are excellent as spelunkers of puppy love. Fanning, at one point, even managed to remind me of Naomi Watts’ incredible turn in Mulholland Drive, of all things. The train crash sequence is destined to be classic.

D.P. Larry Fong must have used the same lenses and film stocks as movies like E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind because it was almost uncanny how much Super 8‘s look evoked that era. (Fans of anamorphic lens flares will rejoice.) Costumes were also evocative, if a bit clean. For art direction, I wasn’t a fan of the look of the cubes, or of seeing a modern 7-11 in the background.

To talk about some of the weaknesses of the film, I’ll have to unleash a few spoilers. I did not like Super 8 as much as Cloverfield, a movie for which it could be a prequel. Some of the secondary performances felt hurried and undeveloped. Classic Spielberg knows when and how to break tension with a laugh. There were several times where these moments fell flat, or over-reached. There’s a point where our kid hero’s father, the local sheriff’s deputy, abruptly turns into something like a commando. The movie doesn’t have the balls to make the alcoholic father actually responsible for the accident, nor does it have the balls to portray any negatives stemming from his alcoholism. The main villain, played by Noah Emmerich, is less-developed than a moustache-twirling cartoon, and the monster/alien is not very dimensional either. The best special effects where when we didn’t see, or only half-glimpsed the creature. Jaws-style. By the time you’re seeing full-body shots and close-ups of his mucus-y face, it’s an anti-climax.

There was a lot of debate about the marketing of this film, which scrupulously avoided showing the alien/monster, or much about the plot. “Tracking numbers” were reportedly very low compared to other summer blockbusters like X-men: First Class and Green Lantern. If I’m being honest about my expectations, I was guessing/hoping that the monster would be invisible. So I was let down when it turned out to be just another movie monster. (I mean, with Guillermo del Toro out there with notebooks and notebooks of cool designs he desperately wants to put on screen, why should a major Hollywood film settle for H.R. Giger redux?)

That said, would I have been as interested and surprised by the film if the trailer had given away more of the story and the alien? Short of human cloning, it’s impossible to A/B these questions. Either way, I’m going to be keeping an eye on the box office numbers, because this film is sure to be an argument one way or another about withholding money shots from marketing campaigns.

UPDATE: Deadline is estimating $37.3M for the opening weekend, which puts it in line with District 9 and under Cloverfield (which was a January open, not summer). The official line from Paramount is that this is above expectations (given the weak tracking numbers pointing to a $30M opening). Most commenters don’t seem to be buying that, or the published $50M budget figure. Paramount did do Thursday previews and release a clip of the monster online right before the opening, but after stories ran in the media about weak tracking numbers. So this isn’t the best test of a pure secrecy marketing strategy. The think left to be determined is whether Green Lantern will cut the legs out from under Super 8 next week.

Further Update: An alien reviews Super 8.