Reviewed by Andrew Kasch
Starring Mike Vogel, Jessica Lucas, Lizzy Caplan, Michael Stahl-David
Directed by Matt Reeves
Ah, hype. It has the power to crush a movie faster than the tallest rampaging lizard. No matter how good the product is, it can rarely compete with what is built up in viewer's minds, and it's hard to remember anything more built-up than Cloverfield – the little J.J. Abrams mystery project that's had the world at attention for the past six months. So how does it all measure up in the end?
Pretty damn well, provided you keep your expectations in check. Cloverfield is a balls-to-the-wall ride of a monster movie – nothing more, nothing less.
Like all creature features, we kick off with the calm before the storm. A group of friends are experimenting with a video camera around New York, documenting the farewell party of good-buddy Rob, who leaves for Japan the following day. But Japan comes to him first when a giant monster suddenly emerges from the harbor and begins to lay waste to the city. With camera rolling, Rob and his buddies haul ass through the decimated streets, hoping to find a way out of the city while all hell breaks loose around them.
It seems like only yesterday we suffered through the terrible post-Blair Witch fad of "found footage" movies, each one worse than the last. Though they were collectively sworn off, this past year has seen a major resurgence only with much better results. Movies like Diary of the Dead (review), Paranormal Activity (review), and [Rec] (review) have all been winners; and Cloverfield fits perfectly into the same mold of intense cinéma-vérité ... So why are all these films suddenly proving successful? Maybe it's the fact that, instead of cashing in on a trend, each one seems like a natural reaction to this age of viral media. There's a great moment towards the beginning of Cloverfield (as seen in the trailer) when the Statue of Liberty's head hits the street. Instead of fleeing for their lives, half the eyewitnesses whip out their camera phones and gather around the rubble for pictures.
The film moves fast and furious and uses its first-person perspective to amp up the realism. The best thing about a cinéma-vérité monster movie is how the creators give you a real sense of scale. When Saving Private Ryan was first released, there were reports of WWII veterans having flashbacks during the battle scenes, and I suspect Cloverfield will have the same effect on New Yorkers. The shaky-cam ground images of falling buildings and fleeing masses bear more than a passing resemblance to 9/11, which is oddly fitting since Godzilla was Japan’s answer to the atomic bomb.
Cloverfield's creature, while not exactly iconic, is still an impressive creation and delivers scenes of astonishing carnage while spawning dozens of smaller creatures (which we first told you about here: "Exclusive Cloverfield Info!" -- August 2007) that make your skin crawl. The FX are all digital, but the action is so frantic and the sound design so chilling that you're easily caught up in the moment without focusing on the low-budget computer animation. In most cases you barely have time to process what you're seeing before racing to the next crumbling set-piece. Of course, in a movie filled with lots of running and screaming, you generally don't get much in the way of characters, but the filmmakers at least give us a good sense of the protagonists through realistic performances and quick thumbnail characterization.
Nothing about Cloverfield is particularly groundbreaking, and the whole thing is over in a flash, but it delivers on its simple promise of wild thrills and wanton destruction. At the very least, those still hurting from the abysmal U.S. Godzilla remake will be thrilled to see New York get its long overdue monster thrashing. Just be sure to stick around during the end credits to hear the creature's theme (appropriately titled "Roar! – Cloverfield Suite"), which is a brilliant send-up of that classic Toho kaiju music we all love.
4 out of 5
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