It’s the first big-deal movie of 2008—and if we aren’t very careful, we’re all going to drown in the gush of praise from those who seem to be rather easily impressed to the point of losing all sense of perspective. Indeed, I think the ever-booster Harry Knowles of Ain’t It Cool News may need sedating to judge by his slobberingly reverential rant—peppered with a dozen permutations of the f-word to convey his excitement and mastery of the English language—that claims the film is a “complete reinvention of the disaster movie, the giant monster movie and even the love story.” Yes, well, that’s why studios love him.
But let’s back off a little and look at this high-concept giant-monster flick dispassionately. What we really have here is something that could best be described as The Blair Witch Project meets MTV’s The Real World riding on the back of the astonishing unbridled ego of producer J.J. Abrams. Start with Mr. Abrams’ pronouncement, “We live in a time of great fear. Having a movie that is about something as outlandish as a massive creature attacking your city allows people to process and experience that fear in a way that is incredibly entertaining and incredibly safe.” In other words, 9/11 anxieties can be fun if processed through the vision of Mr. Abrams and his friends, Matt Reeves (directing) and Drew Goddard (writing), both veterans of Abrams’ TV empire. Just how this allows one to process that fear remains unexplained, though the assurance that it will be “incredibly entertaining and incredibly safe” is, I suppose, comforting.
Setting aside the whole “excuse us while we cash in on post-9/11 paranoia for your own good” banana oil, the simple fact is that at best I found the results a mite shy of being “incredibly entertaining.” If the film reinvents anything other than the public’s acceptance of a kind of YouTube crudery as viable entertainment, I missed it.
In essence, Cloverfield is a pretty stock rampaging-giant-monster movie focused on a no-name cast of vaguely pretty 20-somethings with zero personality and limitless money who set out to rescue an equally personality-challenged friend from certain death. Apparently, one is supposed to care what happens to these self-absorbed, shallow non-characters. After a few minutes of their loft farewell party for the more-or-less main character, Rob (Michael Stahl-David), I was on the side of the monster—and it hadn’t even shown up yet.
Oh, but it has a gimmick: We’re supposedly watching “found footage” à la Blair Witch. Everything we see was ostensibly found in the aftermath of the destruction of New York City in the area “once known as Central Park.” This is a useful gimmick, since it excuses bad lighting, bad camerawork and flat dialogue, while keeping scenes of both the monster and the wholesale destruction pretty easy on the budget. That’s not the idea, of course, but it’s the reality. The idea is that all this nausea-inducing shaky-cam stuff makes the whole movie more real. Yeah? Then why are all the film’s most effective jolts courtesy of the theater’s subwoofer and 6.1 Dolby sound? That little camcorder being brandished by the movie’s token dim-bulb, Hud (T.J. Miller), can not only record for something like 12 hours on one set of batteries and an apparently defective tape (portions of an old video keep popping up to remind us of the “human element” pre-monster invasion), it also edits itself and does the sound mix!
We’re also supposed to believe that Hud’s going to keep taping everything rather than run like hell—even when our band of the intrepidly trendy is attacked by apparently flatulent large crab spiders that fall off the big fellow. My theory is that Hud’s like one of those borzois that ride bicycles in the circus—so dumb that once it starts doing something it doesn’t know how to stop. In any case, the barf-o-cam is probably the least of this picture’s credibility issues. We’re also expected to buy our heroes climbing 50 stories of a building without getting winded, followed by making someone who’s just been yanked free of a large metal rod that was protruding all the way through her shoulder climb 11 stories and run down those original 50. After that, walking away from a helicopter crash is child’s play. I’d like to believe that dropping a bomb on someone in the midst of their patented Blair Witch snot-cam moment is a joke, but that gives the filmmakers more credit than seems probable on the face of things.
For those still wondering, yes, we do finally get full-frontal crudity in terms of the monster that’s only glimpsed in bits and pieces up until the end of the film. Better it should have been left to glimpses, since it’s an improbably cumbersome drab grey cross between a squid and a spider that would almost certainly collapse under its own unwieldy weight in the real world. On the plus side, the film is modestly exciting (again, largely thanks to the sound). And shorn of its end credits and its sub-Godzilla theme entitled “Roar! (Overture to Cloverfield)” (mindless of the fact that overtures come before not after), the whole thing only runs about 70 minutes. But that’s 70 minutes of eyestrain and nausea-inducing camerawork. Rated PG-13 for violence, terror and disturbing images.