January 28, 2008

Monster Mash

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Cynics and skeptics long ago dubbed Cloverfield, the mystery-shrouded monster movie from Lost creator J.J. Abrams, “Godzilla meets Blair Witch Project.” The phrase was meant to be a jab at the film’s handheld, “shot by the characters who were really there”-style camerawork. This type of criticism, however is unfair, because Cloverfield, directed by newcomer Matt Reeves, cannot rightly be qualified as anything so insignificant as a Blair Witch knock-off. At the core of the film is the epic struggle of its characters to survive in the face of unimaginable horrors.

The movie is, ostensibly, the handheld account of a monster attack in Manhattan on one terrifying May evening. Filmed on a camera belonging to Rob (Michael Stahl-David), the movie cuts between footage from the night of the attack and taped-over clips of Rob and would-be sweetheart Beth (Odette Yustman) being couple-y while lying in bed and riding a train to Coney Island.

The first 20 minutes are a little bit tedious. Rob is moving to Japan, so his friends decide to throw him a going away party. Hud (Rob’s best friend and camera man, played by T.J. Miller) cavorts around the party, recording testimonials and capturing the relational turmoil that’s developed between Rob and Beth (who’s none to pleased that Rob is leaving). None of this feels all that necessary, and could probably have been done more economically (by the end of the film’s first act you’ll be pleading “no mo’ drama!”), but once the monster hits, things speed up considerably.

Rob, Hud and a few other party-goers charge head first in the direction of danger when Rob receives a phone call from a terrified Beth, who had returned to her apartment before the attack began, and who now says she can’t move. They hope to avoid running into the beast, but inevitably they do.
If you’re terrified of the prospect of this review spoiling the movie for you by revealing details about the creature, fear not; any attempts to accurately describe what the Cloverfield monster looks like would be unsuccessful. It’s just so … bizarre.

It suffices to say that you’ve never seen anything like this before, and the few full-view shots caught on camera are sufficiently awe-inspiring to justify the nine-dollar movie ticket you bought to finally find out “what the hell that goddamn thing actually is.”

Paradoxically, the monster is both the most and least important part of the movie. Yes, its presence imposes an impossible burden for Rob and his friends to survive, but it’s in their reactions to the events and their refusal to flee in the face of danger that defines the movie’s emotional thrust.

After the monster, the next most notable aspect of Cloverfield is its distinctive visual style. If you had a problem with the shaky camera-work of last summer’s The Bourne Ultimatum, you’ll probably be even more bothered by Michael Bonvillain’s frenzied cinematography here. The camera rocks and rolls, jumps and even occasionally falls to the ground, staring out away from the action. The effect is incredibly well-executed sequences of disorganized carnage as our heroes ward off attacks, not only from the main behemoth, but also from human-sized insects that fall off the monster’s hide.

All monster movies, to a certain extent, are exploiting the public’s fear of mass destruction. In 1950’s Japan, cultural anxieties over the atomic bomb led to the international sensation that was Godzilla (before Roland Emmerich killed the beast with his abhorrent late-’90s blockbuster remake). In the same way, Steven Spielberg tried to tap growing fears over international terrorism in his own War of the Worlds remake. But Cloverfield succeeds in a way that I doubt any other monster movie has. In many ways, it’s the film Spielberg was trying to make, but didn’t. Because of the bootleg camera techniques, the complete lack of a score and the use of relatively unknown actors, Cloverfield achieves the kind of immediacy we yearn for in films, but are rarely ever treated to.
Jeffrey Wells of Hollywood-Elsewhere.com called Cloverfield “A post-9/11 fever dream,” and I can’t really think of any way better to sum it up. The sight of bellowing walls of dust and debris charging toward to camera invokes vivid memories from the attacks, as do the crowded shots of soldiers shepherding panicked Manhattanites over the Brooklyn Bridge.

In certain ways, the film resembles the harrowing 9/11 docudrama United 93; the palpable fear, the expressions of helplessness and the teary-eyed phone calls. Thankfully, the use of monsters instead of hijackers keeps Cloverfield from becoming too heavy to handle.

And not to fear, because while the movie is intense, it can also have a pretty great sense of humor at times, mostly thanks to our cameraman, Hud. The likeable, if doofy, dude makes a number of sarcastic or, more often, airheaded comments that lighten the mood and give the audience a little time to relax before the mayhem resumes.

Cloverfield is a fascinating film. It might be a host to a score of dubious plot contrivances, but to get hung up on its factual curiosities is to be missing the bigger picture. This is a movie that began as an internet-hype machine (à la Snakes on a Plane), and turned into an event film.

In the end, while it isn’t perfect, Cloverfield has injected a shot of adrenaline into the normally-tepid January film landscape.