Every time you read a statement by the director or studio of a big event movie, the one thing they always try and convince us is that ‘it’s all about character’, when they know as well as we do we’re really going to see spectacular interstellar battles, extreme weather destroying skyscrapers or the latest giant monster kicking the crap out of New York.

The J J Abrahms-produced Cloverfield takes that philosophy further than any movie before it has attempted, by showing us the whole ordeal through the eyes of a video camera recording, a sort of The Blair Witch Project meets Godzilla.

Such an approach — a director fixated on relationships in a monster mash and the handheld camera concept — runs the risk of not giving the audience the payoff we’re expecting and showing us the creature.

Cloverfield gets almost everything right. It follows the Jaws template of giving us tantalising glimpses of the beast before several full frontal shots that show us more than enough. It captures the drama and desperation of the situation with raw performances and camerawork that makes you believe it could really have been a video found at the site of the disaster. And it does it all with as much bravado and gusto as any other blockbuster disaster movie. As Abrahms and director Matt Reeves wanted, it tells us a huge story through a tiny, human prism, and the result is something very special.

If you don’t know the story, you’re not alone — the secrets of a movie haven’t been kept this tightly under wraps since Star Wars Episode 1. A group of young, urban New Yorkers gather for a going away party. Something huge rocks the city, a giant explosion appears on the horizon and the head of the Statue of liberty comes crashing down the street. Trouble is obviously brewing, and that’s all movie fans were told — the film not even having an official name until about a month ago.

Trouble indeed brews, and several members of the party try to stay out of the way of a Godzilla-like beast attacking Manhattan and the military marshalled to fight it while they race to rescue the object of the hero’s affection. And it’s all captured by the camcorder that was employed to record digital goodbyes at the party.

It’s a very clever concept and it works, putting the urgent, handheld style of movies like The Bourne Ultimatum and Children of Men to shame. But amid all the running, screaming and jostling, we’re treated to some excellent full frontal images of death and destruction that’s both surprisingly scary and surprisingly gory.

Rather than sensitively avoid obvious September 11 references, Cloverfield also throws them right in your face. Riffs on the terror zeitgeist of our times abound, from the collapsing building showering a cloud of debris down the New York streets to dusty survivors stumbling down train tunnels (like we saw in the aftermath of the London bombings). Those still affected by real pictures of destruction might wonder if it’s still too early to make movies showing the digital equivalent for fun and profit, and the images rub the wound so raw they have a point.

It’s technically brilliant, harrowing and touching all at once.