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Cloverfield

Reviewed By William Goss
Posted 01/19/08 11:16:44

"Some Kind of Monster"
5 stars (Awesome)

Since its instantly iconic teaser trailer proved to be the inadvertent highlight of 'Transformers' last summer, the mystery surrounding the monster movie 'Cloverfield' (yes, that’s the real title, folks) has only grown at an exponential rate over the course of the past six months, and now, here it finally is, in all its allegedly low-budget, undeniably high-concept glory, and guess what? Gangbusters, baby.

For those of you who don’t even get a wi-fi signal under those rocks of yours, it must be said that the story – told entirely through the perspective of a handheld camera – concerns a group of twenty-something, stubble-flaunting yuppies who must make their way through Manhattan in the wake of an abrupt attack by something other than the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man.

A piece of purely visceral survival horror, it does indeed share the continually shaky camerawork that worked wonders for The Blair Witch Project, although not so much on some audiences. Having sat through the film with one nauseated colleague beside me earlier this week and reports of heaving coming from the other auditorium in which it was shown, one should indeed take heed if prone to motion sickness (not to mention vertigo). The whole thing is one carefully calibrated thrill-ride, as exhilarating as a rollercoaster and just as shaky, so do consider yourselves warned.

On the other hand, critics of Blair Witch and the lack of said spirit in that film need not worry about missing out here; these guys have an actual budget to work with. Director Matt Reeves (The Pallbearer) and producer J.J. Abrams (“Lost,” Mission: Impossible 3) keep the creature suitably obscured for a good portion of the film’s 75 minutes (before credits, more on those in a second) before revealing it to an unexpected degree. There aren’t any pesky exposition scenes explaining what it is or where it came from – scouring the Internet for the film’s viral marketing will provide whatever haphazard backstory there is to know – but do trust that it’s a worthy menace wreaking all this havoc, with some surprisingly seamless effects on display, considering their pervasive integration into a dedicated first-person point-of-view.

The performances are fittingly everyday, with a relatively no-name cast – Zooey Deschanel (not really)! Rosario Dawson (not quite)! that hunk from Poseidon! – selling the street-level panic of a city swiftly gone to hell. Of course, given that said city is in fact New York, Reeves makes no subtle allusion to That One September Day, but avoids outright exploitation in doing so. A la Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, the echoes of 9/11 are simply there: ash-covered faces, sidewalk meals abandoned, debris drifting down from the sky; it’s not so much supposed subtext as it is an open-faced acknowledgement of the ‘what if?’ scenarios that have already come to horrendous fruition off-screen. If anything, the film is most concerned with a generation for whom documenting has progressively (regressively?) become a default declaration of purpose.

Of course, in a movie where our jokey cameraman, Hud, (T.J. Miller, literally carrying the film), opts to follow our ostensible lead (Michael Stahl-David) when he chooses to rescue his one true booty call from her tilting tower, and where the camera itself stands about to a fair amount of abuse (not to mention endless battery life), moments both corny and contrived are in no short supply. Our protagonists are always in the wrong place at the right time, in a manner tantamount to that bit in 28 Days Later where the characters acknowledge that something is a shit idea because “it's really obviously a shit idea,” but proceed with that course of action anyway. However, it should be noted the proceedings are no less intense for either their faint air of convenience or familiarity, or even a PG-13 rating (take that, every other horror remake out there!). Deaths all but occur off-camera, profanity remains at a relatively moderate level given the circumstances, the increasingly common night-vision device is employed effectively regardless, and a gimmick involving footage being recorded over works well enough as a nifty source of flashbacks. Naturally, there are nits to be picked (seriously, girl, lose those heels!), but given the chilling effectiveness with which the entire thing operates, I for one found myself more than willing to cut some slack.

Once the film does finally come to a full and complete stop, so begin some rather lengthy end credits that are worth sitting though for one reason and one reason alone: the sublime overture by composer and frequent Abrams collaborator Michael Giacchino (M:I–3, The Incredibles). Saved for the end of a film that only uses music in context, it’s a gloriously bombastic theme that harkens back to classic creature features and would have been right at home in the big-budget crane-shots-and-explanations version of this film that simply must exist in some alternate universe (I imagine that it would share the same dead-on title as the piece itself: “ROAR!”).

At the end of the day, caveats and all, it’s an intimate and immediate E-ticket ride for the iAge, a warped funhouse that plays with (preys upon?) our current fears most expertly and grippingly. If only for providing a unique and satisfying cinematic experience – especially in the doldrums of January – it deserves my full star rating and your attention this weekend, because trust me, it really won’t be the same on DVD or after hearing about it secondhand. If there’s one thing I can assure you that 'Cloverfield' is, it’s dazzlingly, dizzyingly, thrillingly, thoroughly NOW.

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