Produced by Lost boy J.J. Abrams, and directed by Matt Reeves (partner with Abrams on the TV series Felicity), Cloverfield takes place on one fateful Manhattan night, when Rob (Michael Stahl-David) gets a surprise party, and best friend Hud (T.J. Miller) gets to hold the camcorder as he gathers testimonials from friends in the room. Then Beth (Odette Yustman) shows up in a shimmering minidress, and it becomes clear that she and Rob have a history together.
And then the whole building shakes - an earthquake? a terrorist attack? - and Rob, Beth and Hud, along with the sort-of-sulky Marlena (Lizzy Caplan), the perky Lily (Jessica Lucas), and Rob's brother Jason (Mike Vogel), are out in the street, running for their lives, while Whatever That Is spits fireballs and gets shot at by the National Guard.
Cloverfield unfolds entirely from the point of view of the camcorder clutched by Hud, capturing the nightmarish events in herky-jerky, every-which-way ways. This voyeuristic, "reality"-like approach works surprisingly well, and makes the screenwriter's job (Drew Goddard, another Abrams associate, and Lost producer) less taxing: no need for artfully turned dialogue, for revealing insights into character. Just jokey stuff about relationships, some lame pickup lines, and then the horror, the horror.
Which can be pretty funny. Here's Hud and a fleeing companion, early on, reacting to the monster, and then to its spiderlike spawn:
Hud: It's a terrible thing!
Companion: What was that?!
Hud: I don't know. Something else, also terrible!
Eventually, the running and climbing (50 flights of stairs, as Rob goes to the rescue), the tidal waves of debris rushing down the avenues, the screams and carnage grow tiresome - and you can't help wonder what Will Smith is doing on the other, more desolate deadly-virus side of town. (That poor Brooklyn Bridge: Blown to pieces in I Am Legend and now Cloverfield, too!)
Much scampering, yelling, quaking and crying is required of the actors, and they acquit themselves well enough, even with oozing fake wounds and prop rebars piercing their shoulder blades.
As for the title, it's the name of a street in L.A., near Abrams' office. It was affixed to the monster movie project temporarily, but then it really stuck.
Deeper interpretations of its meaning can be posted on your MySpace page, or text-messaged from your BlackBerry.
Cloverfield **1/2 (Out of four stars)
Directed by Matt Reeves. With Lizzy Caplan, Jessica Lucas, T.J. Miller, Michael Stahl-David and Odette Yustman. Distributed by Paramount Pictures.
Running time: 1 hour, 22 mins.
Parent's guide: PG-13 (violence, scares, profanity, adult themes)
Playing at: area theaters
Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://go.philly.com/onmovies.