Tense, jumpy and feeding on paranoia, 'Cloverfield' is the kind of far-fetched fantastical movie that strangely manages to retain a certain level of believability and realism, in spite of its subject matter.
Rob (Stahl-David) is moving to Japan to start a new job and his brother Jason (Vogel) and friends Lily (Lucas) and Hud (Miller) want to give him a send-off, opting for the traditional surprise party in his New York apartment. It's all going well - barring the odd relationship crisis and drunken gossip being spilled to the wrong people - up until a certain point, at which a tremor shakes the room and its occupants up.
Eager to check out what is happening, the party-goers rush to the rooftop, where they witness a terrifying scene of panic and destruction. Not quite sure of what exactly is unfolding on the streets below them they run from the building and straight into utter chaos. Hud, who had been filming Rob's tribute video, leaves with the camcorder in hand, eager to catch this large-scale disaster for the history logs.
But the scene the group of friends have walked into is worse than they could have imagined. Debris falls all around them as buildings crumble and landmarks are flattened. They instinctively run with the rest of the city's population but there is no quick, safe route out of town and whatever force has taken over the city seems hell-bent on wiping them all out.
There are chases, there are escape plans and there are regrets and suffocating emotions, all of which make the movie as atmospheric as it should be. And when looting begins in the middle of the catastrophe you feel that it's going to be a story of everyone for themselves, but then central character Rob realises that he's parted with the love of his life Beth (Yustman) in the worst possible way and, without logic, becomes consumed with making amends before it's too late, dragging Jason, Lily, Hud and casual acquaintance Marlena (Caplan) with him on his mission. Driven by fear of the unexpected, the group's journey across the city is as tense you could hope for, piling on nervous energy with every detour they take.
What probably makes 'Cloverfield' somewhat believable are the range of emotions that the characters portray in their belief that they may be living through their last moments. Similar to portrayals of the aftermath of natural disasters or terrorist attacks, their absolute fear is palpable throughout, bringing a certain intensity to the film.
'Cloverfield' is most of the things it has promised to be: fast-moving, dramatic and tense. But as hype goes, it was slightly over-talked. Sure, the special effects are great and the hand-held camera technique creates an eerie, jumpy feeling, that really captures the mood of the film, but it drops short of a cinematic masterpiece. It is, however, a decent action/disaster movie, with some convincing performances and enough tension to keep you gripping the arms of your chair.