Itís been over six years since the devastating events of 9/11, and already weíre getting films about it. First was United 93, then Oliver Stoneís World Trade Center, and now we get Cloverfield. This new thriller follows in the very lengthy tradition of the monster movie genre. Monster movies in the 50ís and 60ís were often allegories for Americaís worst fears, such as nuclear testing or the Red Menace. Without ever specifically mentioning September 11, Cloverfield nevertheless draws on our psychological connection to that tragic day. There is a shot of a Manhattan skyscraper crumbling to the ground, and images of panicked citizens running in the streets, covered in soot and dust, taking refuge in nearby stores as chaos surrounds them. Letís be honest: the filmmakers could have set this story in any city, but they chose New York for a reason.
In the press notes, producer J.J. Abrams kind of says it all: ďWe live in a time of fear. Having a movie that is about something as outlandish as a massive creature attacking your city allows people to process and experience that fear in a way that is incredibly entertaining and incredibly safe.Ē
The premise is similar to that of 1999ís The Blair Witch Project. What we see is purportedly from a digital videotape discovered by government officials in the ďsite formerly known as Central Park.Ē What we see unfolds as if we are watching that tape.
The early scenes show preparations for a surprise going away party for Rob (Michael Stahl-David), who is about to take a work assignment in Japan. His friends take turns speaking into the camera, offering up testimonials to his awesomeness and wishing him well in his new life. Then Rob shows up, is caught off guard by the party, and begins to enjoy the celebration. The camera, as operated by pal Hud (T.J. Miller), also picks up some unresolved drama. Rob has had a longtime secret love for a girl named Beth (Odette Yustman), and when she shows up to the party with another guy, it sets off Robís jealous side. Then again, he has never formally fessed up to his feelings. Beth becomes so fed up that she storms out of the party.
Itís interesting how we see their relationship. Hud is apparently recording over a tape Rob made a month earlier, on a day when he came as close as he ever has to expressing his feelings to Beth, during a trip to Coney Island. Whenever Hud stops recording temporarily, for one reason or another, we catch brief snippets of what was previously on the tape before he starts back up. Just like a real camcorder.
The revelry is broken with a deafening boom that shakes the whole city. Frightened, everyone makes their way outside, just in time to see the Statue of Libertyís head come flying down the street. A TV news report informs everyone that a giant monster is attacking the city. Rob and the others try to flee across the Brooklyn Bridge, which doesnít work out so well. Then he gets a cell phone call from Beth, who is trapped in her apartment and injured. Rob decides he must make things right by going back to save her. He ignores the military warnings to leave and heads into the heart of the city. Hud follows with the camera, as do a few other close friends. Their journey is perilous, as the monster rages all around them.
Cloverfield is a real 21st century kind of movie; itís a horror film for the You Tube generation. As with Blair Witch, the concept of seeing the action play out from the POV of a video camera is effective. Granted, all the shaky cam stuff may make you a little nauseous; even so, it provides a feeling of you-are-there immediacy that adds to the terror. Iíve long felt that monster movies were the least frightening kinds of horror movies because monsters arenít real, and itís hard to make them convincing. Cloverfield finds a way to get around this. The technique, combined with some genuinely nifty special effects, makes it easier to buy into the situation.
For that reason, this is one of the more intense movies Iíve seen in the last few years. I hesitate to describe any of the scenes in detail, because part of the suspense comes from not knowing where Rob and his pals will have to go next or what they will have to do. Itís sufficient to say that screenwriter Drew Goddard and director Matt Reeves find new and increasingly nerve-wracking hazards for our heroes to confront. A lot of them are very freaky, perhaps none more so than the one which is revealed when Hud turns on the cameraís night vision feature. But then again, there is that scene in the helicopterÖ
Cloverfield effectively does three different kinds of horror. The early scenes capture that sense of what the hell just happened? dread that accompanied 9/11, when everyone knew that something ghastly had taken place, but no one completely knew what it was or why it occurred. The middle section nicely does the creature feature, things-popping-out-from-nowhere kind of horror. And the finale is a work of genuine nihilism. I liked how the movie progressed from one to the other, and I also liked that the personal thread between Rob and Beth was developed in the gaps of the videotape. The glimpses into their Coney Island day provide the film with an unsettling vibe as we watch its final scenes and hear its final lines of dialogue. Iím still trying to shake it off.
Cloverfield is definitely a slight movie, and to some degree, itís a gimmick; you absolutely have to see this in a theater, because so much depends on the largeness of the screen and the capabilities of digital surround sound. The film wonít have nearly the same impact on DVD. That said, this is like a particularly wicked amusement park ride Ė the kind that makes your heart pound and your hands tense up. Thatís not hyperbole; the film really provokes a physical reaction. Cloverfield is bleak and scary and, as a safe and entertaining way to address a very real fear, I loved every minute of it.
( out of four)
Cloverfield is rated PG-13 for violence, terror and disturbing images. The running time is 1 hour and 24 minutes.
To learn more about this film, check out AskMen.com: Cloverfield
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