The shocks come from nowhere, interrupting an evening previously distinguished only by garden-variety personal drama. Due to leave for a job in Japan, Michael Stahl-David spends one last night with his friends, thanks to a surprise party thrown by his brother (Mike Vogel) and his brother's girlfriend (Jessica Lucas). When another friend (Odette Yustman) shows up with a date in tow, news ripples through the crowd that she and Stahl-David, friends since college, recently slept together, only to declare the relationship a non-starter because of his imminent departure. It's all captured for posterity by T.J. Miller, a guest charged with using a video camera to film testimonials for the guest of honor. Then comes the boom, the fire, and the sound of the world crumbling.
The secret-shrouded brainchild of producer J.J. Abrams, writer Drew Goddard, and director Matt Reeves, Cloverfield owes its first-person approach to 1999's shaky-cam horror classic The Blair Witch Project, a debt it repays by taking the technique places Blair Witch could never go. If anything, it's a wonder that more films haven't borrowed the Blair Witch approach in the years since, particularly since the you-are-there immediacy speaks so directly to a decade in which camera phones and YouTube have take the middleman out of video.
Cloverfield taps into the spirit of the age in other, more unsettling ways as well. Its horror is devastating and citywide. Baffled news anchors report it breathlessly, inspiring panic in characters who realize that the violence that only happens elsewhere has found its way home. The monstrous source of the violence maintains an unerring concentration on destruction, and spawns other, smaller monsters with the same focus. It leaves terror, broken buildings, and clouds of dust behind. The best efforts of conventional warfare can't bring it down.
The filmmakers have gone to great lengths to keep the nature of the threat a secret, so let's just say that it couldn't have existed without H.P. Lovecraft, H.R. Giger, or Ishirô Honda, the director who gave Japan an embodiment of its then-recent nuclear attacks with Godzilla. Also, it's absolutely terrifying, and it's all the more effective for the way it lets viewers spend time getting to know the terrified stars, and the emotions and regrets behind their seemingly futile efforts to survive. It puts human faces on the victims of mass destruction, faces that might easily have been yours or mine, staring down the maw of something we don't understand.