Lizzie Caplan, Jessica Lucas, and T.J. Miller star in a film written by Drew Goddard and directed by Matt Reeves.

Reams have been written about these city-smashing monster films; mainly to justify why otherwise smart people enjoy watching a big lizard stomp down on their neighborhood megalopolis. Godzilla in Tokyo, scholars note, is likely the cinematic objectification of nuclear fears or, perhaps, the persistence of traditional folk tales in the postmodern moment. As far as I know, however, this dazzling experiment from the producer of TV’s Lost is the first film to work the genre solely to explore the more universal terrors and truths lurking in the heart of your everyday monster mash. Let New York stand for the world, and this fast and tragic romp becomes a brilliant examination of how fortune plays with our lives. It’s also the story of two overlapping days caught on a video camera, one ending happily on a Coney Island Ferris wheel, the other concluding in a storm of fiery debris and exploding corpses.

Be warned, however, that Cloverfield, with its Blair Witch-like handheld aesthetic is more art film than fanboy outing. As evidence, half of the crowd I saw it with expressed open disgust with Cloverfield and its outcome. The rest, including me, were thrilled. Such division of opinion defines art films today. Its utter brilliance lies in its cheesy ambiguous device: a camcorder documenting the young protagonists’ run in with disaster, which turns the monster movie implications upside down. Instead of witnessing mayhem from a hero’s roost, we’re watching the event from the more democratic perspective of those unfortunately squashed “extras.”

At times, the film stretches credulity, but I was more skeptical of the camcorder’s existence than the monster’s. The filmmakers’ strongest decision here was their refusal to explain what brought this unholy terror down on the good people of Manhattan. “I don’t know why this is happening,” sobs one woman just before things get really horrific. That’s the nature of Fortune, says this film, and the sole prerogative of giant creatures the world over. And this is the best movie in years that’s tried to make the problems of suffering and chance become monstrously clear.

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