The party crasher from Hell, the monster at the heart of Cloverfield doesn't have a name. He might be the son of The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, or second cousin to Godzilla. We do know he's big, angry, and like countless other immigrants, he made his way into Manhattan by way of the port. He sends the disembodied head of Lady Liberty uptown as a kind of calling card.
By then, we're grateful for the intrusion. Matt Reeves' movie begins with more than 20 minutes of plausibly banal home video footage shot on a standard
Rob is on the point of leaving for a new job in Japan, the party is to send him on his way. But there's a romantic complication. A few weeks earlier, Rob and Beth enjoyed a one-night stand. Fearful of getting involved with his transfer so close at hand, Rob hadn't called her. But seeing her at the party with another guy, he realizes he probably made a mistake. Blah, blah, blah.
Reeves, his producer JJ Abrams (Lost) and company must have experimented long and hard to figure out how long they could press this first section. I think they judged it about right: it's enough to give us some sense of the characters (all played by unknowns) and establish the movie's reality, its visual language of jump cuts, jerk pans and shakeycam, and if it's also a little boring, well, that only builds up the anticipation for the main course.
You'll have seen the pivotal scene already; it became the movie's teaser trailer, and something of a phenomenon in its own right. The party is rocked by noises off. The power goes out, and then flickers back on. From the rooftop they see more explosions - and whatever this attack may be, it seems to be getting closer. Meanwhile Hud determines to keep right on shooting. This isn't just a going away memento for his pal Rob anymore, it's eye-witness news.
The camera device is a terrific at conveying panic and confusion. A mass evacuation across the Brooklyn Bridge is aborted after the monster picks off one of the main protagonists. We don't get to see it; Hud was looking the other way and gets caught up in the movement of the crowd. It doesn't matter. We sure know how he feels. (Several US cinemas have reported customers complaining of nausea.)
Reeves' also capitalizes on what amounts to a game of peek-a-boo with the monster, which is revealed in fragments: brief glimpses of something big and blurry which we piece together as the movie goes on.
Movie producers generally don't like to spend a fortune on designing a monster then hiding it like this, but it's often more effective this way - think of Jaws (when Spielberg was forced to cover up a malfunctioning robo-shark) and, more recently, The Host (a budget-saving measure, as well as a nod to Spielberg). The truth is, while the creature is appropriately fearsome, it's still a bit anti-climactic when Reeves finally gives us the full-frontal as dawn breaks and the movie sputters to a conclusion.
Before that, highlights include a firefight between the military and the monster which we hear, while mostly looking at feet and car wheels, and a daring rescue from an apartment building doing a mean leaning tower of Pisa impersonation (the vertiginous camera angles will have you reaching for a seat belt). There's also a fairly scary flight down a dark subway tunnel pursued by something unpleasant.
Of course the elephant in the room is The Blair Witch Project, the micro-budget horror sensation from 1999 that came up with the video camera/found footage conceit, and which Reeves et al have ripped off shamelessly.
There's also a residue of 9/11 exploitation. Scenes of New Yorkers fleeing from a billowing dust cloud down the street are clearly designed to evoke that nightmare. (Remember when we all thought the mega-destruction blockbuster was a thing of the past?)
It would be nice to report that the screenplay was on a par with the ingenuity of the execution, but when you get down to it the characters' heroic quest into the dark heart of midtown is unbelievable psychologically, and on a purely physical level. The scene when everyone pulls out their phone to photograph Lady Liberty's disembodied head felt absolutely true; but it's a lot less credible that Hud would keep the camera to his eye throughout the night, regardless of how much danger he is in.
Not quite the "revolutionary" phenomenon celebrated by some critics, Cloverfield is a very nifty example of thinking outside the box, but it's basically business as usual: the studios co-opting the radical stratagems developed by low budget moviemakers to rejuvenate their own tired ideas.
More to the point, perhaps, it's tense and effective but never as horrific as it should be. By the 75-minute mark, when the end credits start to roll, most viewers will likely feel they've seen enough of this particular gimmick.
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