"Cloverfield" is a nifty update of the '50s schlock monster movie, mercifully unadulterated by delusions of contemporary relevance or nitwit nudge-wink irony. The picture is what it is: A group of people whose chances of survival wouldn't appear to be much of a betting matter encounter a rampaging behemoth from who knows where and spend the rest of the film trying not to attract its sustained interest. It's a movie that aspires only to be scary, and succeeds.
That it's also more disturbingly subversive than such primordial sci-fi predecessors as "Them!" and "It Came from Beneath the Sea" and — especially — the 1956 "Godzilla, King of the Monsters!" is a credit to the pulp expertise of the filmmakers. Director Matt Reeves, writer Drew Goddard and cinematographer Michael Bonvillain — all veterans of one or another of producer J.J. Abrams' popular TV series "Lost," "Alias" and "Felicity" — have brought a fresh spirit to the project, and a tangy modern touch. The movie appears to have been shot entirely by hand-held, consumer-grade video camcorders. (A certain amount of illusion is involved here: The scenes are skillfully lit, and there was, after all, a cinematographer in residence.) The roiling instability of the images creates a sense of chaos that's genuinely unsettling. Something awful is clearly going on — we can hear the screams and the explosions (the soundtrack is earthquake-loud) — but because the camerawork is so out of control, we can never quite see what it is. Until, as they say, it's too late.
The story is simple, as it should be. The picture opens at a loft party in the New York yuppie precinct of TriBeCa, where everybody is young and hot and sloshed. It's a going-away bash for Rob Hawkins (Michael Stahl-David), who's making a career move to Tokyo, and it's being documented by his buffoonish buddy, Hud (T.J. Miller), through whose shaky-cam lens we meet the rest of the cast: Rob's brother Jason (Mike Vogel); the beautiful Beth (Odette Yustman), with whom Rob recently had a one-night stand; and a pair of ancillary babes played by the stunning Jessica Lucas and the droll, dark-eyed Lizzie Caplan (who provides the movie's most interesting performance).
It's unfortunate that this opening sequence goes on for 20 minutes (nearly a quarter of the film's running time); it's too long, and it gives us too much time to become annoyed by the partygoers' abrasive bonhomie, and to wish that a colossal prehistoric lizard of some sort would stomp onto the scene and squash most of them like sand fleas. Please be advised that your patience will be rewarded.
When all hell suddenly breaks loose in the streets outside, Rob and his friends race up to the roof to see what's happening. Here we encounter the movie's most audacious visual strategy. Amid the seismic tremors, thunderous explosions and strange, terrible howling, we see collapsing buildings crowned with flames and, before long, standing walls of dust and debris billowing through the narrow streets. It's the familiar, horrific imagery of 9/11, and it might have been a dreadful miscalculation. But the buildings don't specifically suggest the gleaming, long-gone Twin Towers, and the raging pandemonium on view can be plausibly read as the work of ... whatever that bellowing, skyscraper-size thing is that, thanks to the amateur cameraman, we only intermittently see in the distance.
A monster is a monster, pretty much (unless you're working with a "Lord of the Rings"-level effects budget — and "Cloverfield" reportedly cost a modest $30 million to make). The monster here is entirely adequate; but the real terror is provided by the parasites it rains down on the city — hideous, dog-size, flesh-rending crabosaurs capable of scuttling across ceilings and battering down doors. Because of their ground-level menace, these are more intimate horrors, and their fierce assaults are electrifying. Monster Number One may get the big set-piece scenes — splintering the Brooklyn Bridge with the slam of a single humongous tentacle, for instance — but these ferocious little brutes are even more appalling.
Is it believable that Rob, after getting a cell-phone call from Beth, who's trapped uptown and grievously wounded, would set off into the tumult with his pals to rescue her? Of course it is. How else could we see this earnest little band get whittled down, one doomed member at a time? Or discover that the army has arrived in force with an ominous last-ditch plan called "Hammer Down," in case things get really out of hand in Manhattan? This is the stuff we want from a monster movie — it may be the only stuff we want from one, really — and as always, we'll go along with any pretext to get it.
Naturally, we wonder about the monster — why is he so peeved? Nuclear testing? Environmental despoliation? In the movies of the 1950s, these things would have been explained at thumb-twiddling length. Here, nothing is explained. The creature is wreaking havoc, take it or leave it. And when the artfully devised ending arrives, we can admire the conceptual preparation that's gone into it. It may not be a conclusion that would have played back in the old days — in fact, back then it would surely have been papered over with cheerier prospects. Today, though, when even more gruesome real-life frights are only a click away on the Internet, this dismal denouement seems pretty near perfect.
("Cloverfield" is a Paramount Pictures release. Paramount and MTV are both subsidiaries of Viacom.)
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