by Mel Valentin
After a seemingly interminable wait (more like six months actually), "Cloverfield," the much hyped, much anticipated "Blair Witch Project"-meets-"Godzilla" flick from producer/writer/director J.J. Abramís ("Mission Impossible III," "Lost," "Alias," "Felicity") finally makes its big screen debut. Written by one of Abramís longtime collaborators and friends, Written by Drew Goddard "Lost," "Alias," "Angel," "Buffy the Vampire Slayer") and directed by another, Matt Reeves ("Felicity," "The Pallbearer"), itís hard to imagine "Cloverfield" living up to the anticipation built up through six months of viral-based marketing. Minus shallow characterizations, bland performances, and, at least for some moviegoers, nausea-inducing shaky cam-style and/or unsubtle 9-11 references, it does.Pace Blair Witch Project, Abrams and his writing-directing team structure Cloverfield around a video file retrieved from a digital camcorder by the U.S. military in the aftermath of a destructive attack on Manhattan by a massive monster. The videotape starts with longtime friends turned one-time lovers Rob Hawkins (Michael Stahl-David) and Beth McIntyre (Odette Yustman), waking up blissfully in bed on an April morning, then jumps forward several weeks as Robís brother, Jason (Mike Vogel), and his girlfriend, Lily Ford (Jessica Lucas), plan Rob's going away party (Robís headed to Japan for a promotion). Jason passes off videotaping chores to one of Robís friends, Hudson ďHudĒ Platt (T.J. Miller, heard, but rarely seen). Between videotaping testimonials to Rob's sterling qualities a friend and party host, Hud repeatedly hits on Marlena (Lizzy Caplan), an attractive partygoer with only a tangential connection to Rob, but she repeatedly rebuffs his awkward advances.
"Don't believe the hype...wait, maybe you should."
Beth shows up at the party with a date, angering Rob. After a brief altercation, Beth rushes out of the party. Moments later, shock waves from an earthquake-like event cuts off the building's power. Rushing to the roof, Rob and the others watch as something (or more accurately, some thing) attacks Manhattan. With Manhattan no longer safe, Rob and the others attempt to cross the Brooklyn Bridge, but the sudden appearance of the monster causes widespread panic, injuries, and death. After returning to Manhattan, Rob gets a phone call from Beth, injured and immobile in the monster's attack on midtown Manhattan. Rob decides to make the perilous trek back to midtown to rescue Beth. The monster, the half-arachnid, half-crab, dog-sized parasites, and a military willing to destroy Manhattan to stop the monster stand between Rob and his rescue of Beth.
Abrams, Goddard, and Reeves borrow heavily from the rampaging monster sub-genre that first wowed audiences with the 1924 adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle's novel, The Lost World (not to be confused with Michael Crichton's sequel to Jurassic Park) and, of course, the original 1933 version of King Kong, which set a giant ape loose on Manhattan in the third act. Jump forward two decades to Ray Harryhausen's first, full-length stop-motion animation effort, The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (loosely based on a Ray Bradbury story published in the Saturday Evening Post), followed a year later by Toho Studiosí Godzilla ("Gojira" in Japanese) and on through thirty Godzilla feature films and imitators too numerous to list here.
When it comes to recent monster attacks, Manhattan has the underwhelming 1997 Godzilla remake to its ďcredit.Ē The Godzilla remake has relevance to Cloverfield via an advertising campaign that kept Godzilla hidden from movie audiences. Once moviegoers saw the redesigned, computer-animated Godzilla, they rejected him. While keeping the Cloverfield monster unseen in the trailers or advertisements risked a similarly negative reaction, Abrams and his collaborators didnít have to worry about any preconceptions or assumptions, as they would with a pre-established monster like Godzilla or King Kong. While we donít get to see much of the monster initially, the final reveal is every bit as impressive as Abrams' promised six months ago, thanks to artist Neville Page who designed the monster and Phil Tippettís visual effects artists, who converted Pageís ideas into computer-animated form.
Cloverfield won't win any awards or critical recognition for itís subversive genre take for (because itís not subversive), its performances (bland, mostly), or its storyline (simple, simplistic), but it accomplishes everything Abrams set out to do, giving audiences a tension-filled, visceral experience. Abrams creates a sense of immediacy or urgency, of order quickly devolving into large-scale chaos, of characters forced into survival mode from the handheld, shaky cam/jump cut style that a conventional style wouldnít convey (or wouldnít convey as effectively). Of course, all that style might be hard for moviegoers with sensitive stomachs to take, but Abrams didnít give that problem too much consideration.Ultimately, "Cloverfield" is nothing more than a simple survival story structured around an equally simple, if skillfully executed, conceit. What "Cloverfield" doesnít offer are answers to basic questions about the monsterís origins or goals. Goddardís screenplay relies on coincidence and contrivance one too many times, but Abrams and his cohorts donít pull their punches when it comes to the ending, an ending almost as bleak and nihilistic as Frank Darabontís recent adaptation of Stephen Kingís novella, "The Mist," or Francis Lawrenceís adaptation of Richard Mathesonís classic science-fiction/horror novel, "I Am Legend." Maybe itís the zeitgeist thing (did someone say "post 9-11 fears and anxieties?"). Maybe itís just not. Either way, "Cloverfield" pays homage to the great and not so-great monster movies from the past while simultaneously reinvigorating a genre badly in need of an imagination transfusion.
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originally posted: 01/18/08 16:00:00