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By Pete Vonder Haar | January 18, 2008

New York City has seen its share of movie monster action, even if such incursions have generally paled in comparison to those of Far East sister city Tokyo. “King Kong” was the most famous of these (though he was ultimately less destructive than even “Ghostbusters’” Sta-Puft Marshmallow Man), with “The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms” coming in a distant second and the obscure “Q” barely registering with any but the most pathetic monster aficionados (Roland Emmerich’s s**t sandwich “Godzilla” bears mention solely for purposes of due diligence). “Cloverfield” – a film that might very well have been pitched as “’Friends’ vs. Godzilla” – looks to leave much more of a lasting impression. Bad puns aside, it’s a thoroughly intense and mostly entertaining movie.

For the half dozen of you who are still ignorant of the plot, let me sum up: a going-away party for 20-something New Yorker Rob (Michael Stahl-David), poised to assume a VP position with a company in Japan, is interrupted by a rampaging behemoth hell-bent on taking a very large bite out of the Big Apple, sending a group of friends fleeing through the city. Personalities are briefly sketched (in a frankly overlong opening sequence): Rob is the de facto group leader, and pines for ex-girlfriend Beth (Odette Yustman), who briefly shows up with another guy then splits. Rob’s laid-back brother Jason (Mike Vogel) is dating Lily (Jessica Ford), who appears to carry a torch for Rob. Tagging along are the goofy Hud (T.J. Miller) and the stand-offish Marlena (Lizzy Caplan) who – like Dante Hicks – wasn’t even supposed to be there today.

After the initial attack, which has many briefly speculating that al-Qaeda are up to their old tricks, our group joins the masses attempting to get out of Manhattan until Rob gets a call from Beth, who is injured and helpless somewhere in the city. As testament to either his friends’ stupidity or Beth’s awesome sexual prowess, Rob leads his surviving friends back into the danger zone. Our view of the proceedings is provided by Hud, who dutifully films their descent into the ruins.

“Cloverfield” is a ground’s-eye view of an urban monster assault. Other kaiju flicks have lacked that crucial man-on-the-street perspective, usually opting for generic fleeing crowd shots and the occasional stomped tank. Abrams’ intimate POV renders everything – from the panicked flight of their fellow New Yorkers to the military’s mostly ineffectual efforts to repel the creature – that much more harrowing (or “nauseating,” depending on your shaky-cam tolerance and the general condition of your inner ear). There’s also no explanation of what’s going on. The monster’s origin remains a mystery, and no speculation is offered as to where it might have come from. This is a necessary result of the filmmakers’ presentation (everything we see is part of footage from a Defense Department presentation dubbed “Project: Cloverfield,” recovered from a tape found at “the site formerly known as Central Park”), though viewers who like narrative resolution may be a little irritated.

While the concept is interesting, and the action (after the first act, that is) is fairly nonstop, there are some problems. None of these were deal breakers for me, but different strokes and all that. For starters, the entire movie is built upon the supposition that a relative muttonhead like Hud could create this detailed video chronicle (and on a camera with what must be the world’s first 12-hour battery), and you better just run with it. Second, the herky-jerky camera work took me a good five minutes to get used to, and I’m not one who minds such things. If “The Blair Witch Project” made your stomach roil, you’ll be ralphing on your date’s nachos before the first reel ends. Finally, a PG-13 rating might not affect the violence quotient much these days, but I feel pretty sure that most people would be dropping more than a few hundred f-bombs if confronted with a similar situation. Most people I hang out with, anyway.

I personally ignored most of “Cloverfield’s” internet marketing campaign until after I saw the movie, but I can tell you that there is no onscreen mention of Tagruato or “seabed nectar” or what have you. Rob’s company is never named, and I only caught a glimpse of a Slusho t-shirt at one point. I don’t really think it makes much of a difference, and I hate movies or TV shows that require you to do homework, but I imagine the fake news reports and MySpace tomfoolery should be viewed as more of an enhancement than a necessity.

Despite its flaws, “Cloverfield” mostly worked for me. I’m a fan of monster movies, which helps, and there’s plenty of despair and ambiguity to go along with the confusion experienced by the protagonists. I’m not sure I agree with the decision to make a quartet of bland proto-yuppies the center of the action, but we all look pretty much the same once we’re crushed/eaten/disemboweled. “Cloverfield” is clever enough in its mindless violence to keep you engaged for the brief (84 minute) running time. And stick around during the end credits for what might be the best part of the film: Michael Giacchino’s score, itself an homage to the bombastic soundtracks of monster movies past.

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