Take The Blair Witch Project, a handful of Godzilla movies, some September 11 footage and a dollop of post-September 11 apocalyptic angst. Shake and bake and what comes out is Cloverfield, the alternately intriguing and off-putting brainchild of the producer JJ Abrams (Lost, Alias) and the director Matt Reeves (The Pallbearer) that tries to put the fun back into the on-screen destruction of New York City.
Ostensibly shot with a hand-held camera by Hud (TJ Miller), a New York hipster compelled to document everything, Cloverfield starts at a going-away party for Rob (Michael Stahl-David) whose friends include Jason (Mike Vogel) and the beautiful - just about everyone in this movie is beautiful - Lily (Jessica Lucas). Suddenly, however, the building receives a powerful jolt, the lights flicker and everyone rushes up to the roof where they watch distant buildings explode into flames. When they run down to the street, they find themselves deftly avoiding the head of the Statue of Liberty as it comes flying through the air and crashes next to them.
These initial scenes are really the best of the movie, as the eeriness and scares are genuine and effective. The city is clearly under attack, but no one knows by whom or what. There is a lot of screaming and shouting about someone having seen "it", but what eventually turns out to be a monster has yet to reveal itself to the camcorder. And like most movie monsters, this one is a lot scarier in your imagination than it is in the hands of the special effects guys.
From this point, however, the film veers back-and-forth from the believable to the preposterous, unintentionally provoking a laugh or two along the way. When army troops kneel in the streets and fire at the monster, it is so reminiscent of Godzilla movies that it is more funny than movie history literate. And the crowds of people attempting to outrun the clouds of dust and ash roaring through Manhattan's concrete canyons is such a replication of September 11 terror that it borders on tasteless (especially for anyone who watched the World Trade Center crumble, as this reviewer did).
It also stretches credibility that Hud is so intent on capturing this piece of history on video that, no matter what the havoc, he continues framing his shots. Even when the monster decides he is worth taking a bite of, he points the camera in the right direction for so long that we think we are about to get a good shot of the monster's intestines. At any rate, we don't much care about Hud's demise or that of any of the other characters, for that matter. Unsurprisingly, Cloverfield is not a character-driven work.
The DVD comes with a number of extras, including a "making of" documentary, a director's narration, funny outtakes and alternative endings, the sum total of which reveals an incredible hubris on the part of the cast and crew. Hubris, of course, is indispensable to any filmmaking venture, but it is much easier to embrace when it fuels a project that brings something unique to the screen. Cloverfield delivers its share of thrills, but it is little more than a reconstitution of images easily recognisable from more powerful and more entertaining works. It's better the less you think about it.