A much-debated source of cinematic speculation ever since the mysterious untitled trailer debuted before Transformers in the summer of 2007, producer J.J. Abrams' attempt to create an iconic American movie monster combines Godzilla-style mayhem with Blair Witch Project-style storytelling in a way that's sure to rattle both monster movie fans and disaster film junkies alike. Presented as found footage discovered by the U.S. government in "the area formerly known as Central Park," Cloverfield opens as New York couple Jason (Mike Vogel) and his girlfriend, Lily (Jessica Lucas), prepare a warm going-away party for Jason's brother, Rob (Michael Stahl-David) -- a promising young professional who has recently accepted a high-profile job offer in Japan. As the party gets underway, Rob's mentally deficient best friend, Hud (T.J. Miller), wanders the room on a mission to videotape as many fond farewells for his soon-to-be-departed pal as possible. When, in the middle of the party, the lights flicker out and a massive explosion rocks midtown Manhattan, the group quickly discovers that they are dealing with a destructive force the likes of which humankind has never seen -- leaving Hud with the camera still in hand, ready to capture the entire ensuing ordeal. Reviewing a film like Cloverfield is a trick endeavor if one chooses to respect the remarkable lengths to which the producers of the film went in order to keep the primary aspects of the plot a secret, yet by placing the film in a historical context (both cinematic and otherwise), it's easy to see why it is so effective in rattling viewers who are capable of stomaching the disorienting camerawork. (Note: Viewers who suffer from severe motion sickness will either want to take a healthy dose of Dramamine and sit a safe distance from the screen, or simply wait to watch the film when it comes to home video.)
Cloverfield's familiar but intriguing means of folding fictional horror into a very real cultural context can be easily understood with just a little historical perspective. On August 6, 1945, humankind officially entered the nuclear age when the United States Army Air Force unleashed the fury of the atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima (dropping yet another on the western Kuyshu city of Nagasaki within the course of the next 72 hours). Just nine short years later, Japanese filmmaker Ishiro Honda tapped into the atomic fears that plagued Eastern society in the aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to give birth to one of the most instantly recognizable monsters in movie history -- Godzilla. Though the version of Godzilla that ultimately reached American shores had a decidedly campy slant thanks to a particularly shoddy dub job and the awkward insertion of additional scenes featuring well-known English-speaking actor Raymond Burr, Honda's original cut of the film was a much different, and decidedly grimmer affair. At the time, the citizens of Japan were still reeling from the trauma of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in a similar manner to how contemporary Americans are still reeling from the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and Godzilla embodied everything that their post-nuclear society feared most -- namely wide-scale destruction and the as-yet-to-be-determined effects of nuclear warfare. While the titular character gained popularity around the world in the following decades, the fact remained that Godzilla was a distinctly Japanese creation -- a sort of cautionary mascot for the atomic age. Compelled by the prospect of creating an American counterpart to Godzilla, producer Abrams called upon a creative team that included screenwriter Drew Goddard and director Matt Reeves to make that concept a reality. The result is a film that, despite suffering a few minor flaws in terms of storytelling, accomplishes that lofty goal in a manner that is at once deeply unsettling, highly entertaining, and consistently thrilling once the action gets under way.
The greatest strength that Cloverfield possesses is its ability to recreate that suffocating feeling of dread that washed over Americans just after the fall of the Twin Towers. The film's early scenes of destruction eerily parallel the amateur footage that saturated the media following 9/11, depicting massive clouds of debris swallowing up entire city blocks, and confused citizens wandering the streets in a dreamlike haze. While some may argue that Cloverfield loses a few points for originality once the viewer grasps the true nature of the disaster and the primary plot gets under way, the breathless pacing of the film ensures that the viewer isn't likely to be bored for any more than a few moments throughout its scant 85-minute running time, and there are enough surprises to keep even the most demanding viewer giddily off guard. A tense scene in a subway tunnel makes masterful use of both sound and the night-vision function on your typical consumer-grade video camera, a treacherous trip across a collapsing rooftop is dizzying not just for the shaky camera work, and a final confrontation involving a helicopter and a close brush with the source of the widespread destruction will no doubt satisfy monster movie addicts who feared that they might not get a good look at the "terrible thing," given the film's handheld production style.
While the actors are all commendably natural, it's a saucer-eyed Lizzy Caplan who truly stands apart from the pack as a girl intensely traumatized by the horrors she has just witnessed, yet somehow able to muster the courage of a hero when the situation demands it. While her prickly zinger in one subterranean scene feels just about as forced as the film's predictably ironic coda, that's a small complaint to register for a film that delivers as many grimly enjoyable, panic-induced jolts as Cloverfield does. In an era when Internet hype and creative marketing can effectively build a film up so much that it's impossible to meet expectations on opening day, odds are that viewers who settle into their seats knowing what to expect both thematically and aesthetically aren't likely to walk away disappointed.