Reviewed By Dawn Taylor
Posted 01/18/08 13:51:23

"You've surfed the marketing websites ... now see the movie!"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

No matter what you think about his actual body of work, producer/writer/director J.J. Abrams (he of “Alias,” “Lost” and “Mission: Impossible III”) knows how to draw attention to a project.

Just as Lost gets plenty of off-season marketing mojo from online alternate reality games and podcasts, the Abrams-produced feature film Cloverfield has been hyped for the past six months via an intensive viral marketing campaign involving “leaked” footage and conceptual art, as well as tie-in websites that offer intriguing clues as to the plot of the movie. Abrams knows that his target demographic is ‘net savvy and game crazy, and the ad men who handled the pre-release campaign for Cloverfield have liberally sprinkled the Webverse with plenty of shiny Easter eggs to pique their interest.

Ultimately, however, it comes down to the question of whether Cloverfield is actually any good. And it is – maybe not good enough to deserve the massive amount of manufactured interest generated prior to release, but it’s still pretty darn nifty.

The movie’s main conceit is a more sophisticated take on the gag that drove The Blair Witch Project with one of the film’s characters, Hud (T.J. Miller) shooting all of the events with a camcorder after cataclysmic events disrupt a going-away party for his pal Rob (Michael Stahl-David). In a way, the gimmick is the only thing that sets Cloverfield apart from other giant-monster horror flicks, but it’s clever enough that it works very, very well – it creates intimacy and immediacy, delivering a visceral “you are there” feeling that grabs the viewer in a way that a more conventional, dispassionate style of filming wouldn’t achieve.

That’s important, because Cloverfield really isn’t about the mystery behemoth that rampages through Manhattan, it’s about the people on the ground who are desperately trying not to become monster chow. Director Matt Reeves’ background includes writing and directing Abrams’ soapy TV drama “Felicity,” and that experience colors much of Cloverfield – the first 20 minutes of the film (which runs less than 80 minutes total) are devoted to the personalities of the very photogenic, financially gifted characters as they flirt, bicker and gossip at Rob’s party, so that when all hell breaks loose it’s as if Felicity and her pals were suddenly dropped into the middle of a Godzilla flick. It’s weird, but engagingly so.

It’s not without its flaws, though. Some of those photogenic characters are so similar in appearance and personality that even after 20 minutes of party chatter it’s hard to tell them apart. And while the first-person narrative makes for an exciting thrill ride, decades of monster-movie history have instilled in the audience a desire to know just what, exactly, this thing is that everyone’s running away from – there are lots of hints on the related Internet sites, but the movie itself offers nothing at all to explain its origins.

The CG creatures, explosions and other effects are seamless, however (although it’s worth noting that the shaky, handheld camera has been reported to make more than a few viewers queasy.) From a cinematic and a marketing standpoint, ""Cloverfield’s"] a successful exercise – but, really, it’s little more than that. It’s a lot of fun, but Godzilla’s crown as King of the Monsters is still safe.

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