Cloverfield, (15)

Flee, scram – but take a Steadicam
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You remember The Blair Witch Project – tight, low-budget, you-are-there horror movie? You also remember Godzilla – flabby, big-budget, why-am-I-here creature feature? One Hollywood bright spark has had the idea of crossbreeding the two, and Cloverfield is the name of its spawn. Said spark is producer JJ Abrams, creator of TV series Lost, and therefore someone who knows about fusing genres and the outlandish consequences that may ensue. For good measure he throws into the mix a dose of post-September 11 jitters that allude to the day New York came under attack. The result is pretty heartless in its manipulation, but you have to admire its efficiency.

The first of Abrams' canny manoeuvres is to cast actors who are largely unfamiliar, much as Paul Greengrass did in his airborne ordeal, United 93. This isn't a patch on the Greengrass film, but it understands the importance of getting the feel right. A famous face would throw its softly-softly approach way off-course, whereas a bunch of unknowns have a democratising appeal: the message is, these terror-stricken souls could be us. Maybe. The opening 20 minutes, set at a party in downtown Manhattan, feature a higher quotient of young, groomed, good-looking people than you'd find anywhere outside of a Milanese catwalk. We're not that far from Hollywood.

The Manhattan bash has been thrown in honour of Rob (Michael Stahl-David), who's about to leave town for a job in Japan. His brother, Jason (Mike Vogel), deputes Hud (TJ Miller) to wield the camcorder and catch the evening's, ahem, golden moments. In fact, Hud turns out to be the world's lousiest cameraman, accidentally taping over Rob's cherished recording of his time with the lovely Beth (Odette Yustman) and ignoring his duties to launch a clumsy pursuit of Marlena (Lizzy Caplan).

View the Cloverfield trailer.

Hud also determines the manner of the movie, his lurching, handheld camera being the eye through which we see events unfold. It is not a Steadicam so much as a Wobblicam – and then a Running-and-Screamingcam. The director Matt Reeves sets up this opening in a deliberately low-key style, our only forewarning being the moment when someone enthuses that an attractive girl is "from another planet". The wink has just been tipped: we are about to see what something that's actually from another planet looks like.

The party, going with a bang, abruptly ends with one. At first the revellers think it might be an earthquake, and they pile upstairs onto the roof. From the harbour they see fireballs, and the gradual advance of chaos through the canyons of Manhattan. Soon, they abandon the roof and make for the streets, where the party-wrecker – whatever it is – has just decapitated the Statue of Liberty and hurled her head across town. Cue a wild stampede of terrified city-dwellers, desperately trying to outrun the choking maelstrom of dust that's rolling towards them. As people dive for cover behind shop doors, we are given a vivid reminder of the World Trade Center's collapse, confirmed by a later shot of a stricken high-rise block leaning against another. The exodus heads for Brooklyn Bridge, where things get really calamitous. Why is it, by the way, that monsters always choose major urban landmarks on which to strut their stuff?

The film has also learnt a trick from Alien, insofar as it withholds a clear view of the monster until about halfway in. We get glimpses of its scale (and scaliness), from which we can judge that it could eat a T-Rex for breakfast and still have room for a couple of pterodactyls to snack on through the morning. But the close-ups are saved till later, so the idea of the creature waxes horribly while the denizens of Manhattan are sliding into confusion and panic.

While the military is conducting an evacuation of the island, Rob moves against the tide by heading uptown to save Beth. His heroism is credible, or at least not incredible, but I did wonder why Marlena, Hud and Rob's brother's girlfriend Lily (Jessica Lucas) accompany him, rather than, say, jumping on the first helicopter out of there. Of course, Hud and his camera have to be present, capturing it all, and one sequence in which the four of them are walking down a Stygian-dark subway tunnel may qualify as Fright of the Night. I won't tell you what they see when Hud flicks on his camera-light, but it ain't pretty.

Cloverfield keeps to a tight rhythm, the tom-toms of impending doom suddenly bursting into a whipcrack of violence. It doesn't bother to ask where this monster has come from, or what its purpose might be; such questions would only slow it down. What the film focuses on is instant, visceral reaction – that sudden, helpless lurch of the senses as one tries to get to grips with horror. In that way, it piggybacks the memory of September 11 – the way catastrophe just flew out of the blue yonder – yet in its fantastical dimension, grants its audience a visa to safety: there isn't any likelihood of Godzilla arriving.

Abrams and his team want to flatter our sensitivity by revealing what human beings will go through to protect loved ones, and what they say to one another when protection is no longer possible. I imagine most of us would have chucked the camera long before, or else told the nerd who was still wielding it in our face exactly where he should put it. But nobody does that here, because we live in an age that believes if it's not on a screen, it's not really happening. Could be a message, there.