J. J. Abrams makes good with this contemporary monster movie

Cloverfield

on January 18, 2008 by Mark Keizer
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You know Cloverfield isn’t going to end well when its opening shot of a simulated computer screen reads, “Gov’t case designate … area formerly known as Central Park.” But it primes the pump for a concentrated blast of all-out destructive mayhem that outdoes all recent attempts to destroy the tri-state area, including Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds and certainly Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla.

Cloverfield producer J.J. Abrams (director of Mission: Impossible III and co-creator of ABC’s Lost ) is becoming a brand name at this point, which is more than a function of his ubiquity and increasingly impressive track record (let’s just say he’s upped his profile since co-writing 1997’s Gone Fishin’ ). Abrams, with his dark-rimmed, dorky-hip glasses and casual, alliterative first name, is the fanboy who conquered Hollywood, someone whose sensibilities are in sync with his constituency.

For Cloverfield, he handed the directing reigns to childhood friend Matt Reeves, but the Abrams flair for genre physicality is felt throughout. So is his conceptual knack: This is a monster movie that speaks the language of its core audience, which is not nearly as annoying as it sounds. The entirety of this tightly constructed, yet epic rampage is told through found footage, in this case, camcorder material shot by awkward, oafish Hud (T.J. Miller).

In the lengthy sequence that opens the film and establishes its visual vocabulary, Hud is entrusted with videotaping the going-away party for Rob (Michael Stahl-David), who is moving to Japan, not coincidentally the ancestral home of all oversized movie monsters. Having Hud drift around the party shooting goodbyes sets the tone nicely, but it also reveals the one chink in Abrams’ armor, a reliance on casting impossibly gorgeous young people and assigning them petty love problems. The damage, which is ultimately minor, isn’t just ambivalence about whether Hud gets Marlena (Lizzy Caplan) to notice him. It’s that an enormous monster ripping apart New York is more believable than Rob climbing 50 stories up a partially demolished building to save friend-turned-lover Beth (Odette Yustman) instead of hightailing it out of Manhattan.

But all is forgiven once the words “... hang on to the people you care about the most …” are spoken and the carnage suddenly begins, all of it seen through the footage shot by Hud. Throughout its brisk, 84-minute running time, Reeves, in a career-reviving 180 after the forgettable and forgotten The Pallbearer, maintains an uncomfortable, low-boil tension punctuated by bursts of excitement. And despite the temptation to go overboard with the shaky-cam, he never gets hysterical, even when his characters do. He finds ways, often subtle, of keeping things edgy, including cutting in the middle of sentences and cleverly revealing footage of Rob and Beth’s romantic trip to Coney Island, which Hud is accidentally taping over so he can shoot the monster.

Any movie about an assault on Manhattan will feel reminiscent of that other, real-life attack. But even when the action pauses for a post-rampage shot of dazed civilians wandering dust-covered streets, Abrams and crew are too savvy to have their characters mention it. However, they are savvy enough to know their characters’ first impulse would be to commit everything to video. For a generation raised on YouTube, maybe events too horrible to accept or too weird to ingest become manageable only when captured by a camcorder or a cell phone for future playback. It’s an idea the filmmakers use to tap into the brainpans of a demographic that willingly documents its every thought so they can reach out to strangers and confirm they have friends.

And in the approximately seven hours that comprise the movie’s timeframe, there’s plenty for Hud to document. Cloverfield is a checklist of every awe-inducing image to be wrung out of the concept, from the head of the Statute of Liberty lying in the middle of the street to the dog-sized parasites that fall from the monster and rabidly attack. If it weren’t so beautifully and completely realized, the movie would feel like a loss leader for the video-game tie-in and a stellar product placement opportunity as the characters conveniently break down in front of Sephora stores and Nokia subway ads.

Like most creature features, until the end the monster is glimpsed only in tasty, teasing snippets. Its whipping tail crushes the Brooklyn Bridge, and its grotesque and unnervingly long arms scrape the sides of buildings. And when we’re fixated on the monster as firmly as the anonymous, ill-fated soldiers trying to kill it, Cloverfield is dread-filled and exciting, with a punch that comes from not trying to be anything more than what it is.

Given its reported $25 million bargain budget, success here would allow Abrams to write his own ticket, at least at Paramount, where he can continue finding newfangled ways to reinvigorate old-fashioned genres (he’s currently directing Paramount’s revamp of Star Trek ). Until then, Cloverfield is further evidence of the nerd ascendant: It may be a product of the “Wouldn’t this be awesome?” school of filmmaking, but at least it results in an awesome film.

Distributor: Paramount
Cast: Lizzy Caplan, Jessica Lucas, T.J. Miller, Michael Stahl-David and Odette Yustman
Director: Matt Reeves
Screenwriter: Drew Goddard
Producers: J.J. Abrams and Bryan Burk
Genre: Science-fiction action thriller
Rating: PG-13 for violence, terror and disturbing images
Running time: 84 min.
Release date: January 18, 2008

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