THOSE OF US who grew up in the late '70s and early '80s couldn't help but be indoctrinated into the Church of Spielberg: Jaws in 1975, Close Encounters in '77, Raiders of the Lost Ark in '81, E.T. in '82.

Looks like J.J. Abrams—who's only directed three films, but has already established himself as one of today's most talented purveyors of pop—was a convert too, even if he was born in June of 1966 (thanks, Wikipedia!). Spielberg's all over Abrams' latest, Super 8—so much so that watching it feels less like seeing a new Abrams movie and more like finding few forgotten reels from Spielberg's basement. (Spielberg's credited as a producer on Super 8, which is probably good, since he'd have a bulletproof lawsuit if he wasn't.)

Like most Abrams stuff, Super 8 works better the less you know, but here: A charming gang of nerdy kids—on summer vacation, filming an 8mm zombie movie—witnesses, at jarringly close range, a massive train crash. Onboard? Top-secret Air Force cargo. Soon, microwaves and dogs are going missing, something's making weird noises in the woods, and the kids' steel mill town is taken over by armed airmen. For Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney)—who's already dealing with the death of his mother, a gruff dad (Kyle Chandler), and a crush on a classmate (Elle Fanning)—the mystery's too much to resist.

It's hard not to point out Super 8's gears and pulleys: It's like if The Sandlot met E.T., or Freaks and Geeks met Close Encounters. But what's remarkable isn't just how well Abrams pulls off those honest Spielbergian touches—tense families, cluttered dining rooms, kids not just riding bikes but riding bikes with purpose—but how effective those decades-old details still are. Smart and fun and sweet, and punctuated with some thrilling moments of spectacle, Super 8 is an old-school sort of blockbuster—even if Abrams lays on a bit too much schmaltz in the third act, he's earnest enough that it's hard to fault him for it. Besides, there's more here than sentimental nostalgia: Super 8's one more reminder of how sharp and versatile Abrams can be. If the guy keeps this up, it won't be long until he's the one receiving homages.