06/07/2011 09:25 am ET Updated Aug 07, 2011

Movie Review: Super 8 -- Summer's Best Film

It's always thrilling when a filmmaker emerges -- to see the movie that truly marks his arrival as someone to watch and pay attention to because he not only has something to say but he knows how to say it.

So it is with J.J. Abrams' Super 8, a great leap forward for someone who already has proven himself as a formidable TV auteur, capable of making the leap to movies by shaking up old franchises (Mission: Impossible, Star Trek) with a new vision.

But Super 8 is something else again: the arrival of a director who's made a movie with the confidence and sensitivity to remind you of the first time you saw E.T. It's a movie that will put you on the edge of your seat, even as it puts a lump in your throat.

Certainly, the nods to Steven Spielberg (this film's executive producer) are there, beginning with Abrams' use of a group of kids as the film's central protagonists -- and setting the film in 1979. The story is built around Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney), a youngster first seen sitting silently on a swing set on the day of his mother's funeral. His friends whisper about how tough this must be, even as his father Jackson (Kyle Chandler), a sheriff's deputy, interrupts the wake to arrest a scruffy fellow (Ron Eldard) who turns up to offer condolences.

Cut to a few months later. Joe is pretty much back to normal. School is nearly over and Joe is involved with his best friend Charles (Riley Griffiths), a pudgy kid who is a would-be movie-maker. Charles reads filmmaking magazines (again, this is back in the days when they weren't available at every corner newsstand - particularly not in this little Ohio town) and is making his own Super-8 zombie movie with his friends, to enter into a young filmmaker's contest.

Charles' big coup? Getting Alice Dainard (the pubescent Elle Fanning), an out-of-their-league classmate, to play a role -- as the main character's wife -- in order to flesh out the story. Even better: The underage Alice has agreed to steal her father's car and drive them all to the location for their post-midnight shoot.

The location is the local train station, seemingly abandoned. As they rehearse the scene, as Joe shyly applies makeup to Alice, a train appears in the distance: "Production value!" Charles shouts gleefully, whipping his troops into action so they can get an actual train in the background of their shot.

But a pick-up truck suddenly drives on to the tracks and plows head-on into the train, causing it to derail -- spectacularly so, in a scene as thrilling and white-knuckle as you hope it would be. The kids run for their lives, leaving the tipped-over camera running and capturing at least part of the train wreck.

What did the camera capture?

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