Though things have gotten better since 9/11 — no more week-long media crying-jags on the anniversary; only around 30 percent of us ready to blindly follow the Marlboro Man's idiot brother into whatever horrendously expensive quagmire he tells us the terr'ists are hiding in, etc. — it's easy to see that the psyche of America is still profoundly screwed up. Witness the new film “Cloverfield.” If cinema is the dreams of our collective conscience, then a film like “Cloverfield” is how America's real-life fears can get stirred into a nightmare.

Shot exclusively with handheld digital cameras, “Cloverfield” purports to be a relic recovered by the Department of Defense from the ruins of New York City. The tape begins with footage from a going-away party for Rob (Michael Stahl-David), a fashionable Manhattanite who is shipping out for a job in Japan within the week. Behind the camera is Rob's friend Hud (T.J. Miller). In the too-long, getting-to-know-everybody intro to the action, Hud manages to capture the behind-the-scenes drama at Rob's party — specifically, that Rob has fallen in love with Beth (Odette Yustman), and doesn't know how to ask her to come away with him for his new job.

Around 10,000 years into this made-for-Fox hipster crapola, we finally get to the gravy: the lights flicker, and then all hell breaks loose. A trip to the roof finds our heroes witnessing a huge explosion, after which the head of the Statue of Liberty comes rolling down the street. From there, things quickly go from bad to worse, with the U.S. Army battling street to street with a shambling, 200-foot-tall horror that seems intent on wrecking the city. Meanwhile, Rob, Hud and friends set out to cross Manhattan to save the hapless Beth, who has become trapped in the rubble of her collapsed apartment building, and then trek to Central Park to try to catch the last rescue choppers out.

Director Matt Reeves does a great job here exploiting the claustrophobia and intimacy of hand-held camera footage. The result is a film that feels both terrifying and personal. Not so good, as I noted, is the over-long intro, which went further toward making me dislike the film's pack of beautiful yuppies than anything else.

Still, while “Cloverfield” would have worked better if the characters had been people you actually WANT to survive, the film manages to be pretty damn scary. A clever reboot of the old “Giant Bug” movies of the Cold War 1950s, it reflects one of the sadder bits of conventional wisdom of this new, strange century: the almost universal belief that sooner or later, the other shoe is going to drop.



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