It’s a pleasure to get past viral salesmanship to see the thing itself. J.J. Abrams’ low-fi monster flick Cloverfield began as a secret and became an internet oddity propelled by a marketing approach that engaged everything but the film. Now stripped of external influence we can see the movie for what it is: a meticulously composed faux artifact that manages to feel like a rough and tumble urban nightmare despite a raft of shortcomings.

If I thought this movie had a real identity, I’d call it a gutsy effort. Yet I don’t believe it knows what it wants to be. Abrams, director Matt Reeves and writer Drew Goddard don’t develop a story. Instead they create an impressionistic scenario in which we’re apparently meant to identify with the characters’ fear on such a primal level that we ignore their lack of dimension and personality.

The final product is obviously a monster movie; it does, after all, have a massive beast destroying New York City. It could also be a 9/11 tale, either about the experience of terrorism or a critique of our nation’s methods of dealing with an attack; it could be an Iraq allegory of military attack and fleeing refugees. Cloverfield plainly has ambitions. If it had a viable method for achieving them, it might be a more lingering experience.

I’m glad, then, that it’s a great time for 75 minutes. Well, call it a great hour; the first fifteen minutes seem intentionally inert as we’re introduced to a cast of ciphers. (End credits pad the running time, but this is the shortest major movie in recent memory.)

At a going away party for Rob, bound for Japan, primary characters mingle with celebrating extras; the distinction between them is difficult to discern. Rob’s brother Jason foists a camera off on Rob’s best friend Hud (his name one of many video game nods*) to record testimonials. Also in the mix is Jason’s girlfriend Lily; Hud’s disinterested romantic target Marlena; and Beth, the girl Rob realizes he blew chances with.

Once the first explosion hits, things move pretty fast. This is a media-savvy flick that teases out glimpses of the rampaging monster but also shows us onlookers capturing the action on cell phones and digital cameras. Cloverfield belongs to 2007’s trend of first-person films (Diary of the Dead, Redacted, [REC]) but isn’t much smarter than any of them; we see the action from only one perspective, which is used to place us in the action, not to make significant comment about it.

Shot in lurching first-person shakycam, there’s a marked sense of military realism, thanks to excellent camerawork and composition, but also a reliance on simple video game tropes. The statue of Liberty’s head closes off a street like an artificial wall in an RPG, a tunnel sequence bows to Half-Life and a rooftop climbing sequence is more platformer than pure terror. That’s not a jab, per se; storytelling conventions have migrated from games to movies and aren’t always unwelcome, but here they sometimes leech off atmosphere like a hole in an airplane’s cabin.

The television origins of Abrams and his co-conspirators are blindingly apparent. Where monster movies are often large-scale stories told in minute, fetishized detail, this inverts the formula. It’s an intimate scenario told in broad brushstrokes with no backstory and (as Devin pointed out) no monster origin. The scope is appropriate, but I felt like I’d dropped into the middle of an ongoing series, with characters that would mean more to long-standing viewers.

A paltry love interest propels the story; Rob wants to make sure Beth is safe, and his friends run in tow, with Hud continually operating the video camera so we can watch. That was hard to swallow; couldn’t survival be enough to drive characters across the city?

I felt at one point like I should seek parallels between Cloverfield and The Birds, where romantic and parental tensions precipitated nature’s attack. But despite an attempt at bringing the movie full circle (it ends one month to the minute after it begins) any synergy between human and monster motivation feels purely coincidental.

The love story, then, is an excuse for a downer ending, and not much else. In the final appraisal I didn’t like any of the people in this movie, and every time they took a breather and started talking I tuned right out. But that was a smaller sin than a couple of logical holes.

Cloverfield takes two big tech stumbles. Rob fishes among looters in an electronics store for a cell phone battery but doesn’t grab extra power for the video camera, which we’re then meant to believe is operating for seven straight hours. And the opening of the film makes it appear that the footage came from an SD card, but the way flashback images occasionally blip in indicates shooting on tape. For a media-smart movie, those holes hurt more than anything else.

There is, however, a lot of great monster madness in the middle. The creature, while not a patch on The Host‘s wickedly muscular river beast, is pasty and spindly in just the right way. It drops nasty parasitic things that belong in The Mist, not Emmerich’s Godzilla. Though we see entirely too much of the main monster by the end (I know — ironic given the initial fear that we might not ever see it fully at all) the beast delivers a full handful of shocks and frightening moments, and effects of the parasite’s bite is nasty and perfect.

I realize that I sound predominantly negative, but I did enjoy the hell out of Cloverfield as it ran. I don’t think it has legs — I can’t imagine digging repeatedly into this on DVD the way I might The Host — but during 60 core minutes that doesn’t matter at all. I wanted to see the beast, I grinned like mad when I did, and then I felt more than a little glee as it smashed through Midtown and through any preconceptions I might have brought into the theater with me.

7.5 out of 10

* The common reference for all the info junk on a game
screen being head’s up display, or H.U.D.