If hype were a mountain, Cloverfield would be Everest — majestic, inexplicable and strangely inviting. For months now the Web's geekiest corners have been rife with speculation, parsing clues from the teaser trailer, decoding the title, digging through the labyrinth of the studio's viral marketing and misinformation, and spreading rampant rumors about every micron of available new data. At one point a flame war raged between those who thought it was based on an H.P Lovecraft story and others who thought it was a remake of the '80s Japanime Voltron. No, seriously.
Now that the movie is opening, we can report that it is what it was often purported to be: a "Blair Godzilla Project," that is, a first-person record of a giant monster attack on New York City via "recovered" video footage. That's about it for plot. What the creature is, where it came from, or why it's so pissed? It all remains as perplexing to us as it does to the harried protagonists, who don't have much time for follow-up questions in their frenzied quest for survival.
What we do know is that the handsome, rakish Rob (Michael Stahl-David) is about depart for a new job in Japan (wink, wink) and his insufferable hipster pals are all in a fabulous Manhattan loft for a send-off party. His dopey but sweet-natured best friend Hud (T.J. Miller) has been charged with taping the festivities. When all hell breaks loose, he becomes our eyes and snarky commentary track as the massive unknown menace begins hastily ruining midtown. Along for the ride are Rob's brother's girlfriend Lilly (Jessica Lucas) and Hud's new crush Marlena (Lizzy Caplan), all of whom get caught up in Rob's desperate uptown trek to rescue his sometime-girlfriend Beth (Odette Yustman). That chaotic journey becomes one of the most harrowing commutes ever, as the pretty young things dodge looters, falling debris, munitions and these extremely nasty, scorpion-like critters that drop from the main beasties and bite anything in sight. These primal menaces chase the stars through a darkened subway tunnel in one of the film's most terrifying sequences, but things aren't much better on the surface, where the very large and very fast big fiend seemingly appears around every other corner.
It's hard not to read subtext into the scenes of buildings collapsing and frantic crowds running from smothering dust clouds, with shots that might as well be 9/11 news footage, but Cloverfield is more revolutionary in style than substance. If in essence it's nothing more than a haunted house movie with a boo! to shock audiences every couple minutes, it's an achingly modern one, with a kind of state-of-tomorrow style. Director Matt Reeves keeps the viewer on edge with frantic, paranoid, near nausea-inducing shaky camera work and with clever little visual flourishes throughout. Producer J.J. Abrams and writer Drew Goddard learned the art of withholding from their work on TV's Lost, and their abrupt, merciless and unresolved approach will frustrate some viewers. Most, though, should be exhilarated and unnerved, since there's nothing scarier than the unknown.