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If Godzilla were to knock up Blair Witch Project, Cloverfield would be their spawn. It's not quite as groundbreaking as those two, but the movie is definitely ground-shaking--partly from viewers trembling in their seats.


Cloverfield may go out with a bang, but it fades in with a whimper, albeit for good reason. It's the attack of…Exposition 101, a necessary evil never more so than during the movie's beginning. We meet the characters with whom we will watch Manhattan get shredded like a piece of paper over the course of one night and, more importantly, the handheld video camera that will capture it all. Rob (Michael Stahl-David) is leaving for Japan and his buddy Hud (T.J. Miller) is charged with filming his going-away party and the goodbye speeches that accompany it. Hud keeps the camera steady on the object of his drunken affection, Marlena (Lizzy Caplan), until Beth (Odette Yustman) shows up for a showdown. See, she and Rob were lifelong friends before hooking up and sabotaging everything, and it only ends on worse terms when she leaves the party hastily. With the exposition complete, Cloverfield soon moves on to that attack on NYC shown so often and cryptically around the Internet. It is not a manmade attack--common knowledge for those who partook in the movie's viral Web campaign--but further description might necessitate spoiler alerts, and nobody wants that. This much is safe to say, however: Savor the opening scenes' relative quiet, because your hearing may never recover from what is to come!


Where Cloverfield shelled out some cash for special effects, it compensated with a starless cast. Most moviegoers won't recognize a single name or face of the actors who portray the six main yuppies on the run from God-knows-what, but that helps this movie much more than it hurts. Besides, no mere human could measure up to the real star, that thingamajig terrorizing Manhattan. The whole cast comes off well, however, by acting spontaneously--we are, after all, supposed to believe this is as-it-happened footage and these twentysomethings were caught off-guard. Best of all, there isn't that clichéd hierarchy of roles we're used to seeing in similar movies; there is, for example, no true Hero character, no Will Smith from Independence Day trying, with guaranteed success, to save the world. Stahl-David's (The Black Donnellys) Rob is the closest the movie gets to that sort of banality, but his quest is at least a somewhat realistic one. Miller (Carpoolers), as Hud, adds some comic relief from behind the camera, while everyone else--including Mike Vogel (Supercross) as Rob's brother Jason and Jessica Lucas (Life As We Know It) as Jason's girlfriend--is just the right amount of frantic.


What producer J.J. Abrams (Lost, forthcoming Star Trek) achieved off screen was just as remarkable as what director Matt Reeves achieves on it. Abrams, an Everygeek god whose marketing savvy matches his film IQ, embarked on an ingenious hush-hush campaign for Cloverfield that has simmered since its teaser premiered alongside Transformers--for a while the title was even a secret. The movie arrives with better-than-Snakes on a Plane Internet buzz and foam coming from the mouths of Abrams-philes everywhere. And director Reeves, an Abrams crony from way back in the Felicity days, does not disappoint. The incredible special effects, reportedly executed under a very tight budget by today's standards, make Peter Jackson's $200 million productions seem gratuitous--yet Reeves still evokes an indie/B-movie feel (thanks in no small part, of course, to the frenzied cinematography of Lost's Michael Bonvillain). Reeves' Cloverfield is whiplash-quick (80 minutes!), to the point and out of your head not long after the end credits; it's popcorn cinema done almost flawlessly. And Drew Goddard's (Lost, Alias) script is smarter than it seems, because he must keep the story contained within what is, for all intents and purposes, an impromptu videotape. That means casual moviegoers looking for escapism that is completely predictable might be disappointed.

Bottom Line rated this film 3 stars.