'Super 8'

"Whatever is happening in this movie, it's awesome."

**** (out of four)

The plot's been kept under major wraps, and you’ll be glad I left the cat in the bag. Know this: In summer 1979, 14-year-old Joe (Joel Courtney) and his friends witness a violent train crash that, hint-hint, may have sci-fi connections. Having recently lost his wife in a steel mill accident, Joel's deputy-sheriff father (Kyle Chandler of "Friday Night Lights") has little time for his son when he must protect the 12,000 townspeople of Lillian, Ohio—a reminder to Michael Bay that not only major cities receive attention from gigantic, non-human beings.

The buzz: What? A non-3D summer blockbuster that's neither a sequel nor a superhero movie? If you're looking for a predecessor to the perfectly cast "Super 8," know that writer-director J.J. Abrams spends virtually the entire movie saluting the film's executive producer Steven Spielberg through nods to "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," "E.T.," "Jaws," "Jurassic Park" and more.

The verdict: Think Abrams should do his own thing? Stop ignoring your inner teenage movie fan. "Super 8" spectacularly bottles the Spielbergian magic—actually, that feels like an understatement; the movie is a full-pound Spielberger. It also delivers an adventure so emotionally rewarding that it’s a gift where both the gift itself and the thought behind it really count. Delight in memories of coming-of-age stories such as "Stand By Me." "Super 8" captures the adolescent thrill of secret midnight meetings and heartbreakingly natural moments such as discovering a parent in tears or being transfixed by a girl (Elle Fanning) for the first time. If the film’s idealism in the face of the world’s worst moments is pure Spielberg, the explosive action is all Abrams. He flexes his muscles and proves that he’s a director standing on his own legs, not his idol's. "Super 8" is about kids who love movies directed by a guy who loves movies, and its pure, silly, grin-inducing awesomeness can only help you remember why you love ’em, too. That's called inspired filmmaking, not "How many 'Kung Fu Panda' movies can we make before people stop wanting to buy the toys?"

Did you know? Dialogue doesn't get more beautifully innocent than this statement of fear from Joe's friend, Preston (Zach Mills of "Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium"): "I think I'm having a heart attack. And I have a scrape." Perfect.

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mpais@tribune.com