Let's ignore the obvious problem of Steven Spielberg producing a movie that is so obviously a love letter to Steven Spielberg. That would necessitate a whole other conversation—probably an intervention of some sort. And that's not really the problem with Super 8. The real problem with Super 8 is that you've seen it before, a dozen times. In the process of making a zombie movie, a group of teenagers witness a train wreck that kicks off a series of odd occurrences that disrupt life in their bucolic Ohio town. It's set in a hyper-nostalgic 1979, and the summery cinematography is probably the best part of the movie—the enormous blue skies that fade reluctantly off to dusk, along with the overwhelming spectacle of a train crash that kicks everything off, make this film a joy to watch in a real theater, and the majesty of those few shots probably won't survive the shift to DVD.

But Super 8 feels like a bar band's electric cover of a blues classic. Technically, all the parts are moving in the right direction, and all the players know what they're doing, but the central emotion, the thing that caused the song to be written in the first place, is numbed, making the whole experience irrelevant. Director J.J. Abrams gets some excellent performances out of his child actors, especially Elle Fanning and Joel Courtney, but the story is a lame attempt to touch every Spielberg base—quiet family problems are reflected on a large summer-movie canvas; the innocence of children bests the cynicism of adulthood—without the story mechanics to back those performances up.

The thing that makes Spielberg's early movies work is you can feel his belief that childhood is something miraculous pushing the movie along. His nostalgia for his own childhood, and his exultation at seeing the wonder of childhood in others, is the prime engine of E.T. and the Indiana Jones films. Abrams doesn't share that joy. Super 8, at times, feels like something subversive, an attempt to do battle with Spielberg's worldview, but you realize by the end of the movie that Abrams is just trying to sell something he doesn't completely believe in. It's a crass, manipulative attempt (by, admittedly, a pretty good manipulator) to emulate the movies of his idol without fully understanding what makes those movies work.

More specific, spoilery points are after the jump.

· In their excellent review, Badass Digest pointed out that the biggest problem with Super 8's story is that it should have belonged to Elle Fanning's Alice Dainard character. Alice's issues more accurately mirror the alien's—this isn't a story of overcoming grief; it's a story about surviving abuse—and that's a bad enough mistake to put the entire movie in peril right away. It seems Abrams decided that the movie is about Joel Courtney's Joe Lamb because Spielberg's early movies are always about teenage boys.

· Is Abrams trying to tell a long, multi-movie story about alien contact with Earth? Because the similarity of design between Super 8's alien and the alien in the Abrams-produced Cloverfield is too close to ignore. (The giant alien in Abram's Star Trek reboot, too, appears to be a distant cousin.) If he's not telling a clever epic, spread out among a handful of movies, then it's time to hire a new creature designer, because the current one only has one decent idea.

· I mean, really: Is the fact that we're supposed to join the kids in rooting for a man-eating monster some kind of attempt by Abrams to make the audience consider the simplicity of Spielberg's storytelling? Because if so, he should have committed to that, rather than going for the simplistic, emotional ending he gave us. And the fact that every other supporting character disappeared for the final third of the movie belies a lack of concern for story that makes me believe Abrams really doesn't care about the story he's telling us. Put simply: This isn't a competent enough director to be sneaking a subversive anti-Spielberg statement past audiences.

· Between this movie and X-Men: First Class, the willingness for directors to immediately kill off their black supporting characters is getting downright problematic. Is this a nostalgia kick for 1970s horror movies or something? Because I'd like to see a black guy live to see the last reel just once this summer.