Cloverfield has a high concept, and it is this: A videotape pertinent to the msyterious event code-named "Cloverfield" has been archived by the U.S. Department of Defense and DARPA (Defense Advance Research Projects Agency). The movie is the playback of the video; if something happens that is not on the video, the film audience doesn't get to see it.
The video is the property of Rob Hawkins (Michael Stahl-David), a New Yorker who we first meet as he spends a day with Beth (Odette Yustman), his significant other. The tape then jumps forward a few weeks (the next time somebody hits "record"), as his friends are having a surprise/going-away party for Rob, who is moving to Japan.
The first 20 minutes or so of Cloverfield are commonplace scenes of the attractive, twentysomething Manhattan revelers. The camera flows through the party, taping sayonara messages for Rob and chronicling the relationship dramas within this gathering of friends.
The dialogue, in its lack of overt cleverness, is natural. The performances, though also very natural, border on the bland. (Stahl-David gets all of the best actorly moments.) If this were the gist of the whole movie, it would seem like a pretty forgettable indie.
As three friends (and the camera) are on a balcony, talking about girl trouble, there's an explosion in the distance. With a TV announcement that an oil tanker has capsized in New York Harbor, everybody at the party races to the roof to get a better look and then flees to the street as another explosion sends massive chunks of debris raining down across midtown Manhattan. On the street, one of the flaming boulders is revealed to be the head of the Statue of Liberty.
More chaos on the street, then a building comes down, and a cloud of dust roars down New York's high-rise caverns. It's reminiscent of the Naudet brothers' happenstance documentary film of the morning of 9/11.
As the dust settles, and people venture back onto the streets, something massive is seen rampaging across the city. The whole setup is like someone was making a mumblecore film and a monster movie broke out.
At first, everyone tries to evacuate the island. Then, when Rob gets a message from an imperiled Beth, he and a dedicated group of friends journey with him to rescue her from her Central Park apartment — which also happens to be the monster's stomping grounds.
"Lost meets Felicity" is an appropriate description of the kind of film Cloverfield is, as it's masterminded by some of the folks who brought those TV shows to life. J.J. Abrams (Alias, Mission: Impossible III) produces the first feature script by Drew Goddard (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Alias); Cloverfield is directed by Matt Reeves (The Yards, The Pallbearer). It's a hyper-literate horror-cum-war movie, referencing the first two Alien films, Godzilla, H.P. Lovecraft, Escape from New York, disaster movies, YouTube, and on and on.
The film is completely logical in the framework it creates. The film even answers why this tape is so special to the U.S. government, even though it takes almost the whole movie to address.
The camerawork teeters on vertigo-inducing a times, and it may seem reasonable to question why the cameraman even continues to bother taping. But you get the feeling that the lens acts as an emotional barrier between that character, Hud (T.J. Miller), and the terrifying events he is experiencing: an avenue of escape and detachment even at times when there is no escape.
But for all the jittery camerawork, it's not used as a copout for the Cloverfield filmmakers to skimp on the goods. In a handful of money shots, the monster is seen for what it is. It'll be worth some freeze-frame moments alone with the DVD.
The quality of the actual movie-going experience must also be acknowledged. Like before any film starts, the video and audio tech companies get to show off their mad skills with short animated clips. Dolby Digital and THX did so before Cloverfield, and I have to admit, it was the most awesome display of technical firepower I've ever seen. Kudos to Malco's Paradiso for money well spent. It certainly got me in the mood.
The experience is bookended with a closing credit score called "Roar! (Cloverfield Overture)," by Michael Giacchino. It's the only score in the film, and it is brilliant. (There's plenty of iPod-generation songs playing in the party scenes, though.) I did not turn my radio on in my car on the way home so that it wouldn't get pushed out of my brain.
Though for stretches of the middle act it settles for being very good, by the finale, Cloverfield manages to be at times audacious and often enough brilliant. Cloverfield is a baptismal film experience. Like was the case for me with Jurassic Park, 28 Days Later, and Children of Men, among others, I was totally immersed in its world and found it clutching at me long after I left the theater.