Cloverfield, a surreptitiously subversive, stylistically clever little gem of an entertainment disguised, under its deadpan-neutral title, as a dumb Gen-YouTube monster movie, makes the convincingly chilling argument that the world will end or, at least, Manhattan will crumble with a bang and a whimper. The bang part, as millions who have seen the trailer already know, is supplied by the...thing...that arises on an otherwise peaceful May night to wreak destruction on New York City: He (She? It?) swats at skyscrapers and smashes NYC landmarks, abetted by tentacled mini-monsters that lunge directly at humans like voracious paparazzi. And when the military arrives to fight back, let's just say the troops opt for the all-out surge approach.
The ineffectual whimper of a handful of nobodies caught in the melee, though, is what's new in the old Godzilla formula and also what's blackly funny. The doomed Gotham created by producer J.J. Abrams he with the golden Felicity, Alias, and Lost touch and his team is almost entirely populated by vapid, twenty-something nincompoops. Oops, I mean attractive, indistinguishable young people who handle cell phones, DV cameras, etc., with ease; call one another ''dude''; don't have anything interesting to say; and, perhaps as a result, don't listen to one another, even in an emergency. (The first 20 minutes is a great swath of character-establishing partying, nothing more a masterstroke of lovingly staged banality.) The acting, by a cast of unknown dudes and dudettes, is appropriately unmemorable. There is, however, a nice simulation of panic as the gang sees the Statue of Liberty's head roll down the street.
Cloverfield kills its darlings with élan, thanks to the brilliant, post–Blair Witch Project decision to tell the story through amateur footage shot by one of the refugees a big-picture disaster seen through the viewfinder of little, self-absorbed people. Here, only airplanes have a chance against the beast, and beauty is useless. Only in New York, kids. B+
Want more? See Jeff Jensen's feature that takes you inside the making of Cloverfield