We live in a media-saturated age. This is a time when internet leaks, critical reviews and untold hundreds of promo clips and photos can spoil an entire film months before it’s even released (yes, I’m well-aware of the hypocrisy, thank you very much). Studios and filmmakers have been going with this flow for a while now, using the trend to their advantage to build hype and box office grosses. Yet a select few filmmakers have been resisting this status quo, working to keep their upcoming projects under wraps at all costs. None of them — with the possible exception of Christopher Nolan — have been more notoriously secretive than J.J. Abrams.

Abrams has gone on record comparing his films and TV shows to puzzle boxes, carefully built and specifically designed to conceal the mystery of what’s inside. He firmly seems to believe in the inherent fascination surrounding the unknown, so much so that he once purchased a box of magic tricks that remains unopened over thirty years later. The problem with this approach is that when a mystery is so fiercely guarded and thoroughly hyped, the only way it’s going to be satisfying for the audience is if the inevitable solution is worth the wait. This is where Abrams has been known to fail in the past, as with “Lost” and Cloverfield, but the central mystery of tonight’s movie isn’t really a letdown so much as it’s just unnecessary.

Pretty much all of the hype about Super 8 has been centered around the alien itself. I’ll spare you the suspense, folks: We never get a good look at it. Even the best views of it are partial and/or heavily shadowed, and those don’t come until well into the third act. Moreover, what I could see looked so much like the Cloverfield monster that my reaction wasn’t surprise but disappointed deja vu. Most importantly, the alien itself is really beside the point. It’s honestly the least interesting thing about this film. The movie itself is actually about this group of middle school kids growing up in a town suddenly beset by disaster. The threat could have been a serial murderer or a Soviet spy and it would barely have affected two-thirds of the plot. To that end, I don’t want to waste a lot more time talking about the alien when there are so many other, better reasons for me to recommend the movie.

It all starts with the characters. There’s the young wannabe film crew; comprised of our protagonist, his love interest, an aspiring filmmaker, a pyromaniac and a bookworm. There’s the town sheriff and a hopeless drunkard — the respective parents of the protagonist and the love interest respectively — both of whom hate each other. Then you’ve got the military, assorted townspeople and various other side characters. But what’s really staggering is that aside from a few redshirts and the odd comic relief character (particularly the filmmaker’s bimbo older sister and the stoned film developer), these characters are all surprisingly well-developed. They’re all written and acted in such a way that a deceiving amount of depth is brought to them.

Really, the kids are the stars of this film and they’re the key reason why the movie works. Every one is perfectly cast and immediately relatable. Their antics will bring nostalgia to anyone who went out and did stupid things with their friends as kids. It really is amusing to see them go through the movie with that adorable mix of confidence and worry over getting caught that can only be done by a bunch of twelve-year-olds who don’t know better. Special props are due to Joel Courtney, who plays our protagonist as someone who becomes a de facto leader for no better reason than because hey, things are going to shit and someone has to. This character is depicted as a very courageous and passionate kid, but he’s played with just enough vulnerability to make him a believable character. Also of note is Elle Fanning, who’s simply a marvel here. There are no less than three Oscar-worthy scenes from her in this movie, and she’s especially good when she’s playing a character within her character. Best of all, she — and all the other child actors, come to think of it — are often given scenes and dialogue that might have come off as forced or hackneyed with lesser performances, but these kids really drive them home. They all play three-dimensional characters whose development arcs are a joy to watch. Amazing work.

A ton of credit is due to Abrams for making this film work. Unlike Cloverfield, he didn’t have another director to do all the dirty work, unlike Star Trek, he didn’t have any source material to pull from and unlike either film, he’s the only credited screenwriter. This is all him, and he does a spectacular job. Not only did he coax such amazing performances out of so many unknown child actors, but he was also able to keep the film moving at a surprisingly good pace. The cinematography and editing are both phenomenal — I was particularly fond of how the camera would linger on one scene, just long enough to reveal some unrelated bit of new and vital information. The comedy is wonderfully handled and often slipped right into some big and scary action scene where it’s needed most. The horror is likewise amazing, with every jump scare preceded by agonizing silence and tremendous tension. I’m actually convinced that if Abrams put his mind to it and laid off those goddamned lens flares, he could win an Oscar someday.

I’ll also admit that the effects in this movie are really good. That train crash in particular was pretty damn spectacular, though it entailed a few plot points so ridiculous that I just have to call bullshit. There’s no way a train wreck that explosive would leave a camera relatively unscathed, a couple of film boxes entirely unburned and the man who drove RIGHT INTO THE TRAIN alive.

I also have a few issues with the ending. To put this as spoiler-free as I can, I’d like to have seen some solid evidence that the kids had some positive effect on the proceedings, especially with regard to the alien’s development. Looking back over the entire narrative, I find myself wondering how the outcome might have been different if the kids had never intervened at all. It’s pretty heavily implied that our heroes did indeed save the day, so I suppose an outright confirmation isn’t necessary, but it would’ve been nice all the same.

Still, if I had to say that this film had one major glaring weakness, it’s that the movie tries so hard to be something it’s clearly not. Everything about this film, from its advertisements to its premise to its beautiful score (guess who composed it), seems done with the implicit goal of imitating the Amblin films of the 80’s, but I’m not seeing the connection. The closest similarity is probably with The Goonies, but that film depended heavily on broad comedy and a romanticized narrative, both of which run entirely counter to Super 8. There’s Jaws, which also featured an unseen menace, except that film was about a giant shark. We already know what a giant shark is, what it looks like, that it can’t leave water, that it can’t be bargained with and what it wants (to eat us, duh). Except for the origin, all the film had to do was say that there’s a giant shark on the loose and our imaginations could easily fill in most of the blanks with sufficient accuracy. With an alien, the important matters of size, appearance, method and motivation are much more difficult to pin down and are never entirely explained until the third act.

Poltergeist? That film was focused on horror by way of fanstastical bugfuck insanity. Gremlins? Not nearly enough screwball comedy. E.T. or Close Encounters? Get the fuck outta here. Most of these films involve small-town hijinks and they often involve some group of kids, but the similarities to Super 8 end there. That’s it. This film is definitely not to be confused with anything Spielberg put out a few decades ago. Indeed, it’s not to be confused with anything that’s come before. This film is something new entirely.

Despite a few minor misgivings, I have no problem considering Super 8 must-see material. The performances are all amazing, the direction is rock-solid, the script is refreshingly original and the movie has a tremendous amount of humor, horror and heart. Without the alien, I still would have loved the chance to meet these characters and watch them grow. With the alien, I had a great time following them on one heck of an adventure. See this now.