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Cloverfield   B

Paramount Pictures / Bad Robot Productions

Year Released: 2008
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Matt Reeves
Writer: Drew Goddard
Cast: Lizzy Caplan, Jessica Lucas, T.J. Miller, Michael Stahl-David, Mike Vogel, Odette Yustman.

Review by Rob Vaux

Stop me if this sounds familiar. You're watching some terrible WB-esque teen drama about Beautiful Young Things, and their painful relationship problems, and how awful it is to be Beautiful Young Things on fast-track careers that keep them from experiencing the true love they desire more than anything in the world. And you suffer through their self-absorbed smugness and their faux witticisms and the obnoxious implication that their dilemmas have any bearing on life in the real world. And it makes you so irritated that you want to plant your boot in the TV screen, and you hate those Beautiful Young Things with every fiber of your being, and as you watch the banality of their insipid little stories unfolding before you, some anarchistic internal voice whispers, "You know what would kick so much ass right now? A giant monster attack."

Matt Reeves has your back, baby.

I can't say Cloverfield is the most original film ever made. Its Blair Witch influences are positively unseemly and the rather nifty way it couples them with a Japanese monster mash doesn't change the fact that we've seen much of it before. It also suffers a bit from overhype, after a fiendishly clever ad campaign sent the Internet into a tizzy and expectations now place it somewhere north of The Exorcist as the greatest horror movie ever made. Let's all just step back from that a bit. It neither reinvents the genre nor elevates it to any heights that previous films haven't scaled before. But when freed from unreasonable expectations, it turns out to be a modest little gas: its clever concept blended with stylistic choices that turn low-budget limitation into a tangible asset.

As with The Blair Witch Project, it presents itself as a home-video recording found in the aftermath of a horrific "incident." That allows Reeves to keep his direction simple and his setting as no-nonsense as possible. We start at a party full of unspeakably gorgeous New Yorkers wishing good-bye to their friend Rob (Michael Stahl-David) before he leaves for a shiny new job in Japan. But all is not well in their Central Park West paradise. He has a girl (Odette Yustman) whom he loves, but who can't go with him to his bright future. Also, she has another boyfriend, and we're not sure who she's sleeping with these days, and there's, you know, drama. All of it is faithfully recorded by Rob's buddy Hud (T.J. Miller) -- who himself has the hots for this friend of somebody's friend (Lizzy Caplan) or something -- as various other twerps come traipsing in and out to deliver their opinions on the vagaries of Rob's love life. The twenty-odd minutes of shaky-cam Melrose Place sets up some important plot devices, but otherwise leaves us praying for the slow and painful death of everyone we see.

Then, like mana from heaven, the real purpose of the exercise shows up: a giant colossal Thing That Should Not Be, knocking the head off the Statue of Liberty and putting all of Our Heroes' little problems on the back burner. Rob and his friends first try to escape the ensuing mayhem, but when the Brooklyn Bridge goes down, they remain trapped in Manhattan, and a frantic call from his girlfriend sends them back into the heart of the chaos to try to find her. The next few hours appear to us solely through Hud's camera lens: the beast itself, the dog-sized parasites scuttling off its back, the U.S. Army's eventual counterattack, and the exhilarating destruction all of them leave in their wake.

And that's all it really needs. Cloverfield exists mainly for the giddy thrill of watching Dread Cthulhu curb-stomp the city, and judging it by any more strenuous criteria becomes an exercise in absurdity. Reeves never wavers in his man-on-the-street POV (the more nausea-prone among you should definitely bring Dramamine), revealing bits and pieces of the attack but refusing to let us learn any more about the monster than the characters themselves do. We don't know where it comes from or what it wants, only that it seems intent on bringing the whole of Manhattan crashing down into the Hudson. Reeves hits upon a terrific balance of overt spectacle and eerie suggestion, letting our minds fill in just enough details to give the special effects the right sense of awe.

Several moments of far-fetched goofiness crop up -- seemingly lethal injuries shrugged off, and one scene in an abandoned subway that should have ended on a considerably more gruesome (and final) note -- but Reeves keeps the proceedings extremely energetic and doesn't repeat the same gag twice. He even manages a few elevated bits of commentary on our gadget-obsessed world and the way technology both connects us and pulls us further apart. (A surreal scene in an electronics store in which looters gaze at the HDTVs to witness the destruction right outside the door conveys its satirical edge without losing the post-9/11 immediacy of the scenario.) The monster itself towers over its victims in serviceably cool CGI: wreaking havoc, gobbling up G.I.s, and generally behaving the way we all assumed it would when we bought our tickets. Surrounded by January stench like One Missed Call and the latest Alien vs. Predator debacle, its unadorned popcorn mentality feels fizzy and bright.

And if you can believe it, Rob and those other Beautiful Young Things somehow become a good deal less irritating before the final credits roll. I won't quite say I sympathize with them, but they genuinely do their best and they have the decency to step up to the challenge in a very grim set of circumstances. They won't leave their friend to die frightened and alone, just like we hope we wouldn't if we were in their shoes. Cloverfield actually transforms them from annoying twentysomething mannequins into figures worth rooting for... all inside 84 minutes and smack-dab in the middle of Godzilla's mosh pit to boot.

Who'd have thunk it?

Review published 01.18.2008.

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