Finally, here it is: An "event" movie of this blockbuster season which is neither a superhero flick nor a sequel.

No, this one doesn't follow Super parts I to VII. It does, however, echo another era in its style, setting and story. But those reverberations just help make Super 8 fantastic - both a spirited old-fashioned sci-fi adventure and a drama about a bunch of kids where the characters shine as brightly as the special effects.

Yes, it is another monster movie from a couple of guys who have already unleashed a couple of monster movies of note. It's also the first feature as director-writer-producer for J.J. Abrams, after a CV which has included the creation of television landmark Lost and franchise restoration duties on the most recent Mission: Impossible and Star Trek films, as well as producing alien monster flick Cloverfield.

And producing Super 8 is one Steven Spielberg, whose early alien films, E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind are the foundations of Super 8, as are the 80s' likes of The Goonies and Gremlins.

Abrams acknowledged those influences when talking to TimeOut last week - but says he wasn't just out to pay homage. He wants Super 8 to make anyone who grew up on those films remember how it felt seeing those movies back then.

From the outset, Super 8 is certainly transporting to its 1979 period setting in the steel town of Lillian, Ohio.

There, a group of friends led by would-be director Charles (Riley Griffiths), and his makeup man and model-maker Joe (Joel Courtney) are stealing out after dark to make their own Super 8 zombie movie to enter in a competition.

They've recruited the slightly older Alice (Elle Fanning) as their leading lady. Not only can she borrow her dad's car to get them to their location, she proves a fantastic actress (as are all the kids here, especially Courtney).

And like Joe, whose mother died in an accident at the steel mill, leaving him living with his dad (Chandler) who's the town's deputy sheriff, Alice is also an only child to a troubled father. Inevitably, they bond.

One night out filming at a local railway station, the kids barely escape from the wreckage of a spectacular train crash.

They've seen what caused the wreck. As the authorities arrive to pick up the pieces, it's soon clear the cargo wasn't just multiple crates of small mysterious cubes, but something that has scared all the dogs out of town and soon local townsfolk go missing too.

Of course, once developed, the Super 8 footage from the camera left running at the train wreck, provides another clue. The kids go out on their own as the town is forcibly evacuated, while Joe's dad comes up against the military - which has rolled tanks into town to confront the seemingly invisible threat.

Like any good monster movie, this one reveals just enough monster and Abrams keeps his one neatly under wraps until the final act. Quite a monster it is, too.

But the real thrills aren't about finally seeing what is actually spooking Lillian, or revelling in the throwback Spielberg-iness of it all. No, it's seeing it all happen through those kids' eyes and feeling like you're part of their little gang. That's a feeling that comes with great storytelling and engaging characters.

Super 8 may be yet another mainstream monster movie from a couple of big Hollywood brands, but it's a wonderful one.

Super 8 off-cuts
* The Super 8 soundtrack comes with its own jukebox of hits of the day by the Cars, Blondie and the like. The kids also have a sing-along of the Knack's My Sharona and the Electric Light Orchestra track which features was especially redone by Jeff Lynn after J.J. Abrams reached out to him.

* Elle Fanning, who plays 14-year-old Alice Dainard, the only girl in the gang making the Super 8 film, is the younger sister of Dakota Fanning who starred in Steven Spielberg's War of the Worlds.

* After winning attention at a Los Angeles Super 8 festival in the early 80s teenagers, Abrams and Matt Reeves (later director of Cloverfield and the remake of Let Me In) were contacted by Spielberg to see if they wanted to repair the films he had made as a teenager. They jumped at the chance.

* The film, set in 1979 in the steel town of Lillian Ohio was partly shot in Weirton, West Virginia, the location for The Deer Hunter which won the Best Picture Oscar that same year.

* The film is a co-production of Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment, the logo of which is the flying bicycle framed by a full moon from E.T. Other Amblin films from the early 80s included Gremlins and The Goonies - all tales of suburban kids banding together to deal with weirdness visited upon their neighbourhoods.

* Ryan Lee, who plays young pyromaniac Carey, had to get the braces on this teeth replaced with braces accurate to 1979.

Stars: 5/5
Cast: Kyle Chandler, Elle Fanning, Joel Courtney, Gabriel Basso, Noah Emmerich
Director: J.J. Abrams
Rating: M (violence and fantasy horror)
Running time: 111 mins
Verdict: Kid-powered alien thriller might be a throwback, but it's terrific