The premise of Cloverfield is pretty simple: Rob Hawkins' farewell party is interrupted by what seems like an earthquake. Chaos then ensues as it becomes apparent that some sort of huge monster is rampaging through New York City. As the rest of the populace try to flee to safety, Rob and a handful of friends try to reach the apartment of his longtime friend Beth, who is trapped there, as the monster fights a running battle with the military.
The key selling-point for Cloverfield was the Blair Witch Project approach it took: all the action unfolds through the lens of a single video camera carried by the protagonists. I must confess that I like this style very much; it lends a very personal quality to the proceedings and a certain dose of reality. It worked brilliantly in Blair Witch and it works very well in Cloverfield. A subsequent aspect that works well is that the footage is filmed over previous material of Rob and Beth on a day trip, snatches of which crop up from time to time, emphasising the relationship that is at stake.
After the obligatory slow opening (in which the scene is set and characters are introduced) the action kicks off with a momentary blackout accompanied by what seems to be an earthquake. From this point on, the tempo barely lets up. One of the most effective parts of the film is the sequence following the blackout and tremors, when citizens pour into the streets and watch helplessly as the Statue of Liberty's head rolls down the road. A glimpse of the monster follows and naturally panic spreads like wildfire. These harrowing scenes are reminiscent of the panic of 9/11, particularly with regards to the dust cloud that envelops the surrounding area as a building collapses. The result is hard-hitting and unnervingly realistic. At times you almost feel you're watching a real news report, such is the impact of these scenes.
As the film progresses we get to see more glimpses of the monster, and the CGI is absolutely first-rate. This sort of film often lives or dies by its special effects, but the Cloverfield team totally deliver. There are some stunning set-pieces (the Brooklyn Bridge scene is superb, as is the sequence where the group get caught in a fight between the monster and the military - to say the latter is realistic seems almost an understatement). While the monster is the star of the show, the human protagonists play their parts well and manage to effectively alternate between looking terrified and shell-shocked. Another strong point is the film's length - at 84 minutes it doesn't overstay its welcome, managing to pack plenty of action into its relatively short duration.
The film is however let down by the human aspect. The actors/actresses do a decent job but they're given very little to work with. None of the characters are particularly interesting and the strength of their relationships doesn't really stand up to close scrutiny. Given that the entire plot revolves around the relationship between Rob and Beth, this is something of a problem. The plight of the characters doesn't really inspire any genuine involvement, though credit should be given for the attempts to provide some sort of emotional impact which is too often lacking from monster movies.
Despite this, the weak characters and their shallow relationships do not spoil what is a hugely intense, enjoyable monster film that by turns excites and terrifies. The special effects are first-rate and the first-person perspective works brilliantly to create an exhilarating experience.