"We get the hell out of Manhattan. Now," Jason Hawkins (Mike Vogel) declares early in Cloverfield. His reasons for wanting off the island are pretty legit: Something's attacking the city, leaving behind a massive swath of splintered skyscrapers, burning streets, and bloody bodies. Like Jason, we don't have much of an idea about what's doing the attacking, exactly, or why—but yeah, getting the hell out seems like a really good plan.
Actually, hold up: Ever since the teaser for the then-untitled Cloverfield played in front of last summer's Transformers, we've known a bit about what's going on: That Cloverfield is a monster movie, that it's shot all Blair Witch-style, and that it comes from executive producer J.J. Abrams, who—with Alias, Lost, and the third Mission: Impossible—has proven himself a highly competent creator of pop entertainment. But with Cloverfield, the talented Abrams has been outdone, perhaps, by Paramount Pictures' marketing team: Carefully releasing crumbs of info about Cloverfield, they've managed to keep pretty much everybody, from casual moviegoers to obsessive geeks, in the dark. At this point, the question isn't what's attacking New York, but rather if the oh-so-mysterious Cloverfield can live up to the hype.
It does. Intense and bombastic, Cloverfield is a short, punchy, exhilarating riff on the Godzilla flicks of the '50s and '60s and the disaster epics of the '70s. But it's decidedly personal and postmodern, too: Unlike the polished bluster of Bruckheimer or the popcorn thrills of Spielberg, Cloverfield is messy and clunky, thanks to its gimmick of shooting epic-sized disaster with digital camcorders. It's a contrivance, sure, but what impresses is how well it's done: I've seen countless monsters demolish countless New York landmarks, but I can't think of any time it's felt as fresh and fun as it does in Cloverfield. Director Matt Reeves—along with cinematographer Michael Bonvillain and editor Kevin Stitt—has masterfully captured the clumsy, hypnotic immediacy of home videos: Cloverfield's eerily detailed, weirdly believable, and entirely engaging.
Those looking for spoiler-y details should probably go elsewhere: The impressive monster's best experienced in the rare glimpses that Reeves grudgingly allows. (I'll leave it to a few of the film's panicked characters to describe the creature, and they have some accurate and worrisome adjectives: "giant," "alive," and "winning.") And if you've seen the teaser, you already know 90 percent of the plot. (Short version: Hipsters throw a party. Monster attacks.) Cloverfield's characters aren't brilliant, but they're likeable enough, from reluctant hero Rob (Michael Stahl-David) to his pal Hud (T.J. Miller), who insists on documenting the catastrophe. (It's Hud who holds Cloverfield's frenetic camera, though his beleaguered voiceover is his more charming contribution: "I can't take all this running, man!" he gasps shortly after Cloverfield's characters have begun their dash for survival.)
Despite a seriously pissed-off monster and a few gripping set pieces, the film's characters end up holding their own, thanks to a witty script by Buffy scribe Drew Goddard and skillful direction by Reeves. There are a few stumbles—the drama can get a bit overwrought, and considering the flick's setting, there are a few unavoidable but awkward callbacks to 9/11. But these hiccups are small and forgivable: Ultimately, Goddard and Reeves know they're making a glorified B movie, and 99 percent of the time, Cloverfield is lean, fast, and cool, a film that promises—and delivers—as much bang per buck as possible.