Go ahead and call it gimmicky, but "Cloverfield" is effective.
The trailer, with its image of the Statue of Liberty's severed head bouncing down a Manhattan street, created huge buzz online and at Comic-Con.
The title gave away nothing " it's just the name of a street near producer J.J. Abrams' Los Angeles office, a code word the filmmakers used to keep the project under wraps " but it stuck, adding even more mystery.
And the premise seems tailor-made for the YouTube generation: a monster attack on New York City as seen entirely from the perspective of a partygoer's hand-held video camera.
The "Blair Witch" technique does grow dizzying but, again, it's effective because it feels so authentic and gives the movie an interactive quality. Truly, if a creature several stories high came stomping and roaring through your town, wouldn't you document it, too, and wouldn't it look just like this? (Well, you would if you were 25 or younger.)
But this monster mash-up is a lot of fun, creating some intense gross-out moments and maintaining suspense throughout its speedy running time. Adding to the feeling that you're watching a real attack as it happens is the casting of mostly unknown actors. (Typical of the creator of "Lost," Abrams intentionally told them nothing about the material during auditions.)
Michael Stahl-David stars as Rob, who's about to move to Japan for work (in a nice little homage to "Godzilla") and whose going-away party is interrupted by the arrival of a very large, angry reptile. Mike Vogel plays his brother, Jason, and the two are obviously close. Odette Yustman is Rob's gorgeous would-be girlfriend, Beth, who lives in a high-rise overlooking Central Park; and T.J. Miller is Hud, the guy behind the video camera.
It's a responsibility Hud takes reluctantly. As established by director Matt Reeves and writer Drew Goddard, both longtime Abrams friends and collaborators, Rob is about to leave town and all his friends have gathered at a downtown loft to surprise him. Goofy Hud, who has no internal censor, is given the task of recording their good-byes. (The structure is a handy way of letting us get to know the characters, and it lulls us in before all hell breaks loose.)
But he doesn't really know how to operate the thing, and he keeps hitting the play button instead of record, revealing snippets of the tape that was already in there: blissful footage Rob shot the morning after an unexpected hook-up with Beth. Now, a month later, they're clearly not together anymore " hence her awkward arrival at his party with another guy.
Also at the party are Jason's bossy girlfriend, Lily (Jessica Lucas), and smart-mouthed Marlena (Lizzy Caplan), a friend-of-a-friend for whom T.J. harbors a secret crush.
They're all flung out onto the streets, along with the rest of Manhattan, when the shaking and booming begin. Surely this will remind a lot of people of what the city was like on Sept. 11, with its falling buildings, walls of dust and smoke, and general pandemonium as people run around seeking safety and hunting frantically for their friends. It does send a chill but, now that it's been several years, the sensation doesn't feel exploitative.
A scene on the Brooklyn Bridge as hordes of evacuees struggle in vain to escape is unsettling, with the rumbling of feet and the snapping of cables, as is a sequence underground as several characters try to make their way uptown through the subway tunnels.
And then there is the creature itself, which we only see in brief, obscured glimpses for the longest time, and which drops spiderlike baby creatures all over the place.
Abrams, et al, have said that "Cloverfield" is a metaphor for the fearful times we live in, but it's doubtful most moviegoers will head into it with such a lofty thought in mind, or that that they'll consider that high concept as they walk away. They're mostly going for the ride. And they'll get it.
"Cloverfield," a Paramount Pictures release, is rated PG-13 for violence, terror and disturbing images. Running time: 84 minutes. Three stars out of four.