"Cloverfield" begins with a found video, time-stamped by the Department of Defense, with the ominous notation that it was located at the site "formerly known as Central Park." The home-movie footage that follows is supposed to have been shot with a camcorder passed among friends -- a frightening, of-the-moment ramble somewhat undercut by the same point-of-view gambit that allows the film to be fleet-of-foot and modestly budgeted.
Executed by a trio of TV veterans -- producer J.J. Abrams, writer Drew Goddard and director Matt Reeves -- the movie stars a group of fresh-faced up-and-comers as young hipsters throwing a farewell party for a friend about to leave the country for a new job. It initially unfolds as a Manhattan yuppie drama, populated by sensitive dudes and spunky babes, but quickly becomes wrapped sushi-style in the FX-driven nori of a Godzilla flick.
The party takes place in an enormous downtown loft, organized by Lily (Jessica Lucas), abetted (or more accurately, hindered) by her somber boyfriend, Jason (Mike Vogel), and the hapless comic relief of Hud (T.J. Miller). Jason's brother, Rob (Michael Stahl-David), is the night's honoree, ready to start a new life in Japan (one of the movie's numerous nods to screen monster lore) and nursing a so-bad-it-hurts crush on Beth (Odette Yustman), who has the poor form to bring a date to the party.
Just as the social interactions of the group build to a crescendo and Beth departs with her date, the building is rocked by an earthquake-like jolt. Mayhem ensues, and Rob, Jason, Lily and Hud, joined by Marlena (Lizzy Caplan), are soon out in the streets attempting to flee the city on foot with the swarming masses.
The filmmakers effectively evoke contemporary fears, conjuring images reminiscent of Sept. 11, before revealing their creature, an enormous, reptilian beast with the capability of reducing skyscrapers to rubble in a matter of seconds. In fact, so involving is the initial rush of terror, they probably could have held out even longer before exposing the monster as it takes a bite out of the Big Apple.
Though the 20-minute or so party scene begins to feel like a pilot for a soon-to-vanish TV series, it allows the audience time to invest in the characters who are ably played by actors whose good looks don't preclude convincing performances. Particularly strong is Stahl-David, whose heroic quest to locate Beth drives the drama, and Caplan, who resembles a young Debra Winger, as a quirky outsider. One of the traditional advantages of casting unfamiliar faces is that the order in which they get picked off is not so blatantly obvious as in movies in which there is a clear pecking order.
There is a visceral, pit-of-the-stomach dread to the scenes of urban destruction that rise above mere genre. Once the group of partyers is whittled to the core, the drama is intensified not only by the imminent threat but also by the underlying and universal fear of being alone. Abrams, Goddard and Reeves successfully mine this communal unease while alleviating just enough tension to keep it in the realm of entertainment.
"Cloverfield" is adept at wringing maximum suspense and might have reached the heights of the Korean monster film "The Host" but for the limitations of the camcorder ploy. While it injects the film with a run-and-gun urgency, the device grows tiresome and ultimately leaves the film shortchanged.
Charged with the primary duty of carrying the camera, Hud takes chronicling the destruction of the city as a badge of honor, but it frequently exceeds the point where we can comfortably be expected to maintain our suspension of disbelief.
Similarly, the film's brevity, though admirable on some level, feels like an indication that the filmmakers simply exhausted their ideas of making the strategy work.
"Cloverfield." MPAA rating: PG-13 for violence, terror and disturbing images. Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes. In general release.