Not that you thought it was safe to go back into lower Manhattan after I Am Legend, where Will Smith single-handedly fought off a small army of terrorists - excuse me, zombies - bent on converting the rest of us to their bloodthirsty ways. To say that Cloverfield picks up where I Am Legend left off is to ignore the fact that New York City is always being destroyed in our movie-fed imaginations. Who knows, maybe the 9/11 hijackers watched King Kong to psych themselves up for their flights of destiny. What Cloverfield adds to the pile, to great effect, is the camcorder, that ubiquitous tool for documenting the YouTube generation's every move. If the kids in The Blair Witch Project had stumbled into a Godzilla movie, this is what they'd have left behind.
"Cloverfield" is the Pentagon's code name for an I'll-take-Manhattan spree by a very large and apparently very angry reptile-ish beastie that starts things off by beheading Lady Liberty. And we learn very early on that the film we are about to see is footage taken by a twentysomething as he and his fellow twentysomethings - the usual gaggle of geese, only better actors delivering better dialogue - tried to avoid an island's worth of Ground Zeroes. Indeed, the first 20 minutes or so of this barely-over-an-hour film is of a going-away party, and it's kind of like watching Friends: The Final Episode. But it turns out to be just enough to get us to worry about them. They don't know they're on Godzilla's lunch menu.
As a rule, creature-feature creatures should be heard, not seen, and director Matt Reeves maybe gives his critter too much face time, especially given the face, which seems a little too reminiscent of the red-hot mama in Alien. But Cloverfield nevertheless packs quite a wallop, thanks in large part to its scattershot syntax, which gives it an experimental-film vibe. It also restricts our range of vision, always a handy device when it comes to springing "boo" moments on an audience. And it brings a you-are-there immediacy to images that seem straight out of the 9/11 clip file: buildings collapsing from top to bottom, debris clouds heading this way, Manhattanites making a beeline for the Brooklyn Bridge.
The connection to 9/11 is always in our minds, ramping up the terror, but Reeves and scriptwriter Drew Goddard don't seem to have much on their minds beyond scaring the bejesus out of us. Disaster films prey on our fears, and these happen to be our fears right now. But some people might find the whole thing a little crass, and I might have myself were the movie not so well done. If The Bourne Supremacy took the steadicam to the limit (and beyond, I would argue), Cloverfield does the same for the unsteadicam. I wondered when someone would finally pick up on The Blair Witch Project's point-and-shoot esthetic. Next, we'll get a movie shot entirely with cell phones, I suppose. Here's hoping it's half as entertaining as this one.