Yes, obviously, I was aware of Cloverfield. I’m way too big of a movie geek for it to have stayed completely off my radar. But while some spent the months before its release doing little more than surfing the web and scrutinizing every piece of information that leaked out (or, more likely, that producer J.J. Abrams knowingly and willfully released, albeit in a manner to make it look like it had been leaked), before going into the theater, I really only knew two things about it:
1) It was a creature feature about New York City being attacked by a monster big enough to rip the head off the Statue of Liberty.
2) It was done in a manner resembling “The Blair Witch Project,” where the footage was supposedly a found document, made by people who’d survived the attack.
Hey, man, you had me at “a monster big enough to rip the head off the Statue of Liberty.”
Cloverfield opens not with a bang, however, with a formal declaration that what we’re about to see is the property of the United States Government, having been found in the site formerly known as Central Park. It’s the kind of ominous phrasing that makes you rock and forth in your seat, repeating the mantra, “This is gonna be good, this is gonna be good, oh, this is gonna be so good,” which may be why it feels somewhat anticlimactic when the film then proceeds to spend the next 15 – 20 minutes introducing the human element by documenting a farewell party.
Here’s the scenario: Rob (Michael Stahl-David) is getting ready to leave NYC and start a new job in Japan, so his brother Jason (Mike Vogel) and Jason’s girlfriend, Lily (Jessica Lucas), decide to throw him a bon voyage shindig. Everybody happy, smiling, and on their way to profound drunkenness when Beth (Odette Yustman) shows up. Beth and Rob had been friends for years, but they recently slept together, and as if things weren’t awkward enough between them as a result, Beth’s shown up at Rob’s function with a date in tow.
Bored yet? Actually, it’s all pretty entertaining, thanks to the handheld camerawork of Rob’s best friend, Hud (T.J. Miller); it’s his eyes we’re seeing the party through, and the result is exactly what you’d expect from someone who’s been drafted into such a gig at the last second and has zero interest in what he’s doing. Still, while it’s a necessary evil in order to make us care about our characters, it succeeds less at building tension and more at making us want to wave frantically at the screen to make with the monster already. But don’t worry: once the monster does finally arrive, the film begins a non-stop thrill ride through the streets of New York (not to mention both above and below them), and thanks to Hud’s camerawork, you’re sitting in the front seat the whole time.
Cloverfield is a bold reinvention of the monster-movie genre, giving us a point of view that we rarely see, namely that of the people in the Godzilla movies who look up, scream, and go running through the streets. As a result, we learn precious little about what the monster is, where it came from, or why it’s here, but, then, the film’s structure doesn’t lend itself to the casual doling-out of information; it’s about the emotional experience that would be endured by an ordinary person caught up in a decidedly extraordinary situation.
Mind you, it’s also about as nausea-inducing as The Blair Witch Project — a fact to which my wife will readily testify, as she had to stay in her seat ’til most of the crowd had left the theater in order to regain her equilibrium — but if you allow yourself to get caught up in the experience, you gradually find yourself getting used to the shaky-cam effect. It’s also a bit disconcerting to watch disaster footage which so unabashedly resembles all of the various 9/11 home videos we’ve seen over the years, but in truth, that’s probably one of the biggest reasons the film works as well as it does.
Sure, Cloverfield requires a fair amount of suspension of disbelief. For instance, I can forgive a good popcorn movie just about anything, but toward the end of the flick, even *I* found myself wondering, “Damn, what kind of battery has Hud got in that video camera? That thing should’ve been dead hours ago!” When you get right down to it, though, you just have to remember that we’re talking about a film revolving around a gigantic monster clambering through the streets of New York City…or, in other words, screw your common sense, shut up and eat your popcorn, and just enjoy the Cloverfield experience.