“Cloverfield,” which takes its name from the Santa Monica boulevard where producer J.J. Abrams’ Bad Robot production company is based, is a sleek, silly product of green filmmaking: It recycles old ideas and molds them into a lean, briskly paced thriller that owes as much to classic monster movies like “Godzilla” as ambitious, gimmick-driven misfires like “The Blair Witch Project.”
Abrams, whose creations include “Mission: Impossible III” and TV’s “Lost,” allegedly came up with the idea for “Cloverfield” during a promotional tour of Japan, where Godzilla was originally conceived as a metaphor for America, the nuclear superpower that laid waste to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Here, the tables have turned as a cast of handsome young Manhattanites struggle to survive an attack by a towering, seemingly indestructible monster bent on nothing less than Armageddon.
It’s a simple premise, chilling in its depiction of man as a hopelessly endangered species.
Rob (Michael Stahl-David) is a corporate workaholic on the verge of leaving for a job in Japan, but not before celebrating one last evening with his friends, including his brother Jason (Mike Vogel) and Hud (T.J. Miller), an oblivious sort who agrees to document the evening on a digital camcorder. The footage he collects is mostly forgettable — drunken testimonials, snippets of scandalous gossip — until a cataclysmic explosion sends the head of the Statue of Liberty careening into the streets of lower Manhattan.
It is a jarring spectacle, enough to send Rob’s guests scattering into the balmy evening as the New York skyline is illuminated by thunderous blasts, each more violent than the last.
Rob sets off in search of Beth (Odette Yustman), a longtime friend and former lover, even as the wreckage piles up around him. The rest of “Cloverfield” is a desperate race to safety, even as the city’s subway tunnels and emergency shelters are overrun by spider-like creatures that dine on human flesh.
Unlike “The Host,” in which the reckless disposal of chemical waste spawned a mutant carnivore along South Korea’s Han River, “Cloverfield” makes no attempt to explain its beasts or their motives. The devastation speaks for itself, captured in stark, graphic fashion by Hud’s perpetually shaking camera. The home movie that follows is dizzying and deliberately crude but brilliant in its minimalism — the most unsettling violence is suggested but rarely shown, and Abrams’ monster is revealed only in tantalizing glimpses until the film’s bleak denouement.
As a stylistic device, the handheld camerawork and documentary-style footage are bound to evoke memories of “The Blair Witch Project,” but “Cloverfield” is a sharper, more-polished experiment. Its cast of unknowns rises to the occasion — they seem genuinely terrified, despite their surreal resilience in the face of unthinkable peril. Meanwhile, the action around them unfolds quickly and convincingly, at a pace breathless enough to provide cover for the film’s least plausible moments.
* * *
Starring: Lizzy Caplan, Jessica Lucas, T.J. Miller, Michael Stahl-David, Mike Vogel, Odette Yustman
Written by Drew Goddard
Directed by Matt Reeves
Running time: 1 hour, 24 minutes