by Rob Gonsalves
The conceit of "Cloverfield," like "The Blair Witch Project" before it, is that we're watching video footage of unexplained, horrific events. While "Blair Witch" was all suggestion and no pay-off, though, "Cloverfield" delivers the goods.It's a giant-monster movie told from street level, from the viewpoint of regular people fleeing from the beast. The cycle of revelation and retreat can be electrifying, and it's fun to see this new angle on an old story. A goofball named Hud (T.J. Miller) captures the whole thing on a shaky borrowed digital camera, and when the monster shows itself in its full awful splendor near the end, Hud is mesmerized beyond terror; he stands there filming like a dummy, or like a human being in shock, as the thing gets ready for its closeup.
"A decent addition to the giant-monster gallery."
Bellowing like an enraged foghorn, the monster crawls up from the depths off of Coney Island and slithers through Manhattan with an eerie, dislocated-elbow motion. In the monster-attack scenes, the movie's style -- the apocalypse barely glimpsed -- is chilling: We're seeing essentially what we would see if we were there. A faux cinema verite film like this, however, can get locked into repetition; in a conventional narrative, scenes build and are shaped dramatically, and the standard big-monster movies from Gojira to the more recent The Host can forge suspense out of editing, composition and dialogue in a way that a movie like Cloverfield can't. Yet Cloverfield, God save us all, attempts to have a plot -- a conventional narrative plot wedded to a style that can't support it.
The footage starts out at a going-away party for Rob Hawkins (Michael Stahl-David), who's leaving soon for a nice job in Japan. (We send them a yuppie, they send us a Toho beastie?) The party stops when the monster arrives, and Rob spends much of the movie trying to get to Midtown to rescue Beth (Odette Yustman), his lost love. Hud tags along, since there'd be no movie if he didn't, as well as Rob's brother's girlfriend Lily (Jessica Lucas) and outsider Marlena (Lizzy Caplan, whose shell-shocked deadpan steals the film). This results in more than a few flat, stagey scenes that feel especially inconsequential because there's a monster knocking large holes out of New York and who cares if Rob finds Beth?
There've been a few grumbles that Cloverfield deals in 9/11 imagery. Such critics seem to forget Steven Spielberg's War of the Worlds, with its dust-covered survivors and its street poles littered with "missing" posters. As I said in my review of that film, 9/11 changed the way we imagine large-scale disaster; we've seen what real city devastation looks like, and we can't go back to tidier, more innocent visuals. The filmmakers, including producer J.J. Abrams (Lost) and director Matt Reeves, have dutifully talked up Cloverfield as a cathartic horror experience, much as Gojira was for post-Hiroshima Japan. The movie also tips its hat to its predecessors, including Alien and Starship Troopers. Essentially, it's a noble experiment whose writer (Drew Goddard) couldn't resist a little boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-saves-girl-from-gigantic-critter Hollywood gloss.
Still, I can't deny feeling several massive surges of adrenaline whenever the monster stomped on tanks (oh yes, the military does get involved, much to its regret) or knocked over buildings or took out the Brooklyn Bridge. 9/11 notwithstanding, fictional catastrophe is still a thrill, which is somewhat reassuring. I do have misgivings about the way the story plays out, but no monster movie is without some boring-part, you-can-hit-the-bathroom-now cheesiness, and I guess the flat sections work as time-outs from the chaos. For the most part, Cloverfield earns its spot on your shelf next to all the Harryhausens and Tohos.Oh, and if you really need to know where the monster came from, do a Google search for "Tagruato."
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originally posted: 01/19/08 23:26:30