While filming at a railroad stop, the added “production value” of a passing-by train unexpectedly turns explosive when it derails and crashes—and not by accident. The result is not only the escape of “something” from a top secret Air Force boxcar but also the ripple effects from the military’s descent onto this quiet town to Joe and Alice being forced to confront what they had grown accustomed to suppressing, both with their respective fathers and, eventually, each other.

As Joe, newcomer Joel Courtney is impressive. He feels the flood of conflicting emotions in a way that is natural and true: guarded on the surface but surging underneath. As Alice, Elle Fanning (Somewhere) not only matches the sophisticated talents of her sibling starlet Dakota but also channels a well of vulnerability that her older sister lacks. They each have and share moments that will make your heart break and eyes well up. In addition, subplots involving their fathers add even more poignancy, supported by Kyle Chandler (TV’s Friday Night Lights) and Ron Eldard (TV’s ER) in roles that easily could’ve been one-note but, instead, are elevated by authentic, dimensional turns.

Though my focus here has been on the characters, the film itself patiently builds and crescendos its emotional through-line. To be more accurate, it’s the thrills, laughs and scares that play at the forefront of this highly engrossing piece of popcorn cinema.  Abrams masterfully builds suspense, unleashes terror, and then breaks tension with comic relief (and, in doing so, brings our guard down only to scare us again). He does this in large part by keeping “the creature” a mystery through most of the film (is it a monster? An alien?!), wisely following the old Jaws-adage to keep “It” hidden, concealed, and out of frame up until the final act.

It’s bald-faced manipulation on the part of Abrams that creates an emotional and experiential roller-coaster, but manipulation is a wonderful thing when done to such entertaining effect. Indeed, its effectiveness should be stressed as a caution to parents. While it makes me feel like a kid again, this is definitely not for children. Stylistic horror as well as bloody aftereffects of attacks are simply too intense for younger viewers, as is the natural flow of profanities from this early-teens cast (another “homage” that isn’t quite so parent-friendly). It’s a fairly “hard” PG-13.

The finale's sci-fi details are a bit rushed and muddled, but the emotional climax couldn't be more clear—or potent. It will put a lump in your throat, and have earned it. Sure, the themes are basic; there’s no deep insight here. What makes it potent isn’t originality; it’s sincerity. This doesn’t intend to provoke new ideas or ways of thinking. Rather, it affirms (powerfully so) the values we hold true—love, valor, sacrifice, compassion—and the courage to summon those virtues when put to the test.

The purity of this endeavor is exemplified best in the fact that there’s no setup for a sequel, no crass establishment of a tentpole franchise. It is as it should be: a singular, personal story with its own arc and poetic closure.

Go opening weekend. Fight the crowds. Stand in line if you have to. This is meant to be a communal experience.  Super 8 is why we go to the movies. It’s more than a movie. It’s an affectionate “thank you” to a filmmaker who inspired a generation, from a filmmaker who will inspire the next.