Review: “Cloverfield”

It will be interesting to see public reaction when the highly secretive and much anticipated “Cloverfield” is released. Coming in under a heavy weight of expectation, there’ll be some notable deflation when people discover that all the filmmakers have done is simply taken a “Blair Witch Project” style approach to what is essentially a New York-set “Godzilla” movie – nothing more or less. Taken on that level alone however, its a quite effective thrill ride that works just as it intends too.

This is one of those simple yet effective ideas that works so well that you have to wonder why they haven’t done it before now. Shown only from the perspective of a single digital camcorder, the story follows a group of friends whose farewell bash for their Japan-bound buddy Rob is interrupted when a giant monster attacks the city. After a failed attempt to escape the chaos (one of the film’s better action scenes set on the Brooklyn Bridge), most of the movie has the cadre of friends crossing from New York’s lower-east side up to Central Park during this crisis to reach Rob’s injured sweetheart who is trapped in her half-collapsed apartment building rather than getting out of the city (not the first bone-headed decision made by these people admittedly).

The ensuing shaky camera footage, which makes Paul Greengrass’ “Bourne” films seem rock steady in comparison, mixes all sorts of different elements together – glimpses of the army firing every weapon they have at the beast, scenes of 9/11 style public chaos and empty streets, jumping across unstable building superstructure disaster movie antics, and even an infrared “Aliens”-esque attack scene in the subway by the monster’s vicious Rottweiler-sized tarantula/crab hybrid offspring (the film’s single best scene).

The underwritten nerdy scientists and trigger-happy soldiers that normally populate these B-grade efforts are dumped in favor of underwritten good-looking twenty-something yuppies and slackers. The practically all unknown actors do the best they can with these rote characters which include the stoner friend, the intellectual wallflower, and the more successful brother and his girlfriend. Caplan and Lucas as the two main girls deliver nicely assertive turns in what easily could have been dull screaming damsel roles, whilst Stahl-David with his well-defined chest (kudos Mr. Reeves for getting him down to his boxers in the first scene) oozes genuine every day charm and sex appeal that make him not only a lead you want to see succeed but an actor to keep an eye on in future.

There’s the odd laugh or two from the banter but otherwise these are pretty standard disaster movie stock roles with no development or emotional arcs to get you more than mildly invested in their fate – it’s all running, yelling, and ‘we’ve got to go on’ style dialogue. The filmmakers at least take advantage of this by effectively conveying the sense that right off the bat any of these characters could die at any moment, and from early on start killing off those that you would normally expect to survive. It’s certainly not a scary film (the recent and disappointing “I Am Legend” had far more ‘jumps’ to it), but the deaths are quite unexpected and vicious for a PG-13 movie.

The CG digital mattes and scene extensions are almost entirely flawless, delivering a very effective sense that all of this is taking place in a mostly abandoned New York City instead of a Los Angeles back lot where much of it was shot. The effects for the creature however aren’t so well-executed, the lack of a big movie budget is notably felt in the several scenes where we get awkwardly cartoonish full body and face shots of the long-limbed beast which looks like the love child of a giant bat and that wussy ‘Newborn’ from “Alien Resurrection”.

Thankfully it’s kept to the sidelines for the most part, only bits of it glimpsed between buildings or on cable news report footage playing on TV screens. Thankfully any exposition about the creature itself, and ways the Government has to deal with it, has been jettisoned in order to keep the pseudo-documentary illusion intact. The very effective sound design (the lack of any score is a big plus) lets your cinema’s subwoofers and your own imagination do most of the work in the buildup to its few and often very destructive moments on-screen.

A lot of time is also spent on the impact and aftermath of the creature’s rampage, from the inevitable public looting to a haunting moment involving the Central Park horse and carriage aimlessly wandering the empty streets. The 9-11 parallels come to a forefront early on as just seconds after the ‘Liberty Head’ incident seen in the trailer we see a tall building collapse and people screaming and running into nearby shops to avoid a fast moving wall of dust headed their way.

It’s a chilling scene, an effect enhanced by the often frequent times throughout the film where the camera will be put down or cut to glimpses of old footage of Rob & Beth’s romance to heighten or ease off on the tension of the main narrative. These moments follow predictable horror film beats and so the illusion of filming of real life events are often undermined by a distinct feeling of manipulation on the part of the filmmakers.

Still, at a breezy 84 minutes long (with credits), the film delivers the roller coaster thrill ride it promises – not the genre-changing action/suspense masterpiece that many seem to already be demanding of it. Director Matt Reeves and especially producer J.J. Abrams have a genuine understanding of how to properly pace and convey tension with this kind of material and so keep the action frequent enough to maintain excitement, but know when to stop and take a breath for some needed respite from the auditory assault. Ultimately though the secret of “Cloverfield” is that it is simply a clever (albeit derivative) spin on a very predictable genre. A fun but forgettable B-movie ride.