Twenty years ago, Francis Ford Coppola predicted a bright future for personal movies. "One day, some little fat girl in Ohio is going to be the new Mozart," he said," "and make a beautiful film with her father's little camcorder, and for once this whole professionalism about movies will be destroyed forever, and it will become an art form."

JJ Abrams has turned Coppola's forecast into plot, if not practice: "Super 8" is literally about a fat kid in Ohio making a movie. However, it uses that grain of inspiration to create an enjoyable sci-fi nostalgia trip with the help of a familiar name: Steven Spielberg, Abrams' executive producer and the de facto cinematic deity whose filmmaking bible defines the movie's chief appeal. "Super 8" amounts to Spielbergian porn, and unlike another critic, I mean that as a compliment.

From its mysterious otherworldly presence with unknown motives to the late '70s suburban kids whose vast imaginations are swept up in its path, "Super 8" contains echoes of "E.T.," "Close Encounters," "Jurassic Park" and even less essential entries in the Spielberg canon, like "War of the Worlds." Abrams ably meets the challenge of aping Spielberg's command of classic film language: Luxurious crane shots capture the vast, empty landscape; methodical pacing competently draws out the suspense, and the soundtrack boasts melodramatic crescendos straight from the John Williams playbook. The director even adheres to the cardinal rule of geekology, which demands that you must never show the full body of the monster too soon. Something is loose in the sleepy town of Lillian, Ohio, but you have to stay until the end to see it for yourself.

Creepy implications keep "Super 8" engaging, but the cast makes it click. As Joe, the prototypical adolescent outcast who loves model trains more than his social life, Joel Courtney makes a memorable and subtle onscreen debut. The character's mother dies in a construction accident before the movie begins, leaving him in an uneasy position with his mopey dad, Lillian's committed sheriff (Kyle Chandler). Joe's best pal is the aforementioned aspiring director, chubby goofball Charles (Riley Griffith), who wants to make a Romero-esque zombie movie for the local film festival. The two kids both harbor crushes on classmate Alice (Elle Fanning), although only Joe can relate to her single-parent household. At any rate, Charles' real love is his movie, and he's worried about its prospects. "It's not a story yet," he moans, watching amateur dailies filled with fake blood.

Abrams responds to that typical complaint by loading "Super 8" with plenty of story to spare. When an unseen creature escapes from a train wreck, hardened military men show up and put the town on lockdown. Dogs and humans abruptly vanish. Nobody seems to have a clue what to do when the entire populace is quarantined--except for those brave young adventurers. Collectively, Joe, Charles and their colorful friends come across like "The Goonies" by way of Encyclopedia Brown, courting danger and evolving into unlikely heroes. It would make a great double bill with the upcoming British sci-fi adventure tale "Attack the Block," another kids-versus-aliens yarn.

Viewed on its own terms, however, Abrams' script is about the fantasy of movies coming to life. It imagines what might happen if Coppola's proverbial fat girl lived out her dream to its fullest extent. Spielberg, whose child characters have idolized dinosaurs and aliens before meeting them face to face, knows this formula in his sleep.

"Super 8" displays the transition from Spielberg the man to Spielberg the noun. (As in: Abrams has pulled a Spielberg.) But it's far from perfect. The imitation of familiar tropes are sometimes too methodical to feel entirely genuine. In true Spielbergian fashion, the events erupt into heavy sentimentalism with its penultimate scene, softening the momentum. Why bother letting the music swell when understatement has already done the trick? No matter: In the last minute before the credits roll, Abrams rediscovers his groove with the sort of beautiful pop-art poetry that has dwindled in an era of blockbusters defined by speed and volume. It's a boldly earnest climax; another Spielbergian lesson well learned.

As it happens, "Super 8" is only one of two movies opening this weekend with blatant nods to "Jurassic Park." André Øvredal's wonderfully fun "The Troll Hunter" is somewhat more significant. The Norwegian filmmaker's fake documentary about a couple of film students trying to make a real documentary on clandestine trolls, and finding themselves faced down by the deadliest of the bunch, delivers a constant rush. Furthermore, it introduces convincing special effects within distinctly low-budget means, replete with a shaky-cam technique and improvised dialogue. Despite its intentionally unpolished moments, "The Troll Hunter" contains a breathless chase scene that samples Spielberg's memorable T-Rex roar, just as Abrams does at a key moment in "Super 8." Øvredal's smaller-scale project comes closer to realizing the concept behind the fat girl making her movie. "Super 8" merely expresses the dream of that potential.

HOW WILL IT PLAY? Many box office pundits are certain that "Super 8" will flop. A few others think Abrams and Spielberg have a secret hit on their hands. More likely, distributor Paramount faces a middle ground between those two opinions: The movie will open softly, and do solid business based on generally positive word of mouth, then enjoy a healthier life on DVD.

criticWIRE grade: B+

"Super 8" opens nationwide this Friday.