Now that the fanboy hype has cleared, we can see Cloverfield for what it is: borrowed inspiration, trite screenwriting and amateurish acting all in the service of a ballsy idea — that a horror movie could maybe, just maybe, have a soul. As it turns out, Cloverfield's virtues are all mechanical, but, hot damn, what it might have been.
According to the thinking of producer J.J. Abrams, a rabid Godzilla fan, a monster attacking Manhattan might be a cathartic way for audiences to process their lingering fears about the events of September 11th. No politics, just the raw terror of an alien attack, jangling our nerves the way Japan's 1954 Godzilla evoked panic over the atomic bomb. Cloverfield looked good on paper, and for much of its breathlessly short running time it looks mighty good onscreen. The tech boys really strut their stuff. The monster, seen in glimpses, looms menacingly. And those crablike parasites that pop off the Big Boy's hide are manic creepazoids that rate high on the ick meter. But the movie keeps hinting at a profundity — a core of feeling — that never comes. Look, I'm not that bothered that the structure of the movie is lifted from The Blair Witch Project — we're watching digicam footage found in the aftermath of destruction. It's the YouTube-ification of Hollywood — let it roll. What galls me is that Abrams, whose first feature was the underrated Mission: Impossible III, has gathered his TV team — director Matt Reeves, who worked with Abrams on Felicity, and screenwriter Drew Goddard, who toiled with Abrams on Lost and Alias — to create characters that literally define vacuity. These twentysometings, whom the script spends fifteen minutes letting us hang with, are instead people we'd like to hang. Where's Juno when you need her?>It all starts with a party. The guest of honor is Rob (Michael Stahl-David), a careerist about to move to Japan (nice Godzilla name-check) to cement his status as a hateful yuppie. To record the doings for posterity, Rob's brother Jason (Mike Vogel) assigns his buddy Hud (T.J. Miller) to tote around a camcorder. Assorted drunks and a hottie named Lily (Jessica Lucas)rovide the forced testimonials. We even get to see Beth (Odette Yustman), the girl getting the sayonara from Rob, arrive to taunt him with her new guy. And Hud, who spends most of the movie behind the camera as our YouTube guide for the entire ride, flirts with Marlena, played by Lizzy Caplan with an energy not found in the DNA of the other cast members. For all theoozing , posing and macking, these characters move around like walking MySpace profiles who don't get any hits. By now, anyone who doesn't dote on Gossip Girl will be begging for the monster to show up and stomp these annoying nonentities.
The lizard king arrives on cue. We don't see all of him at first, but we hear him roar, knock down buildings and send the head of the Statue of Liberty rolling down a street right in front of our party crowd. And then, boom, down goes the Brooklyn Bridge with a smack of his tail. The fireworks are something to see, with soldiers firing at something unwoundable. To theilm's credit, it even gets off a few images that qualify as poetic, like the shot of a horse-drawn carriage without a driver moving slowly toward Central Park, where the military runs its rescue operation under the code name Cloverfield. There's lots of running and ducking and screaming that holds to PG-13 strictures, meaning you hear, "Oh, shit" instead of "Oh, fuck." Through it all, Hud documents the devastation with herky-jerky camerawork that suggests video images of Iraq and a bulldog tenacity that Werner Herzog would envy.
About the dizzying visuals: If the movie had lasted another half-hour, you'd barf. But eighty minutes of woozy is just right. Miller did some of the shooting himself; the rest was done by cinematographer Michael Bonvillain and a team of experts pretending to be inexperienced bunglers. The gimmick that would make Michael Bay blush involves the fact that Hud is taping over footage showing Rob and Beth in their happier days. Let Hud put down the camera for a sec, and up comes just the appropriate shot of our lovers making like Leo and Kate in Titanic. Nothing like a little shameless emotional manipulation to spark a movie that's already treading risky ground by exploiting a global tragedy for thrills. At least there's no Celine Dionallad to drag us down to emo hell. We are meant to feel the heartache as Rob and the gang trudge through a dark subway tunnel on Spring Street to Central Park South. It's here that Rob, suddenly unselfish and loving, sets out to save Beth, now trapped in her fancy apartment high up (of course) in the Time Warner Center. The scene is an FX triumph that you don't believeor a second. And though the cast starts falling prey to disaster one by one, there is a bright side: less cringeworthy banter. One character, watching Manhattan on fire, announces that this is "serious shit." He's half right.
I've heard the excuse that people running for their lives rarely stop to be pithy. Duly noted. But I'm not ready to concede that it's impossible to make a monster movie with a meaning that cuts deep and characters we can see ourselves in. In 2006, South Korean director Bong Joon-Ho did just that with The Host, a film of transfixing power that used the concept of a beastising from a river of toxic waste (America's fault) to invade the very notion of family values. It's on DVD. Check it out.