Cloverfield is a big, dumb monster movie about nothing

It took nine years for Godzilla to rise up out of the ashes of Hiroshima and wreak his destruction on the good people of Tokyo in 1954. Here in America, it's taken just over six years for the idea of an escapist disaster movie set on the streets of New York City to go from pop-culture anathema to hotly anticipated commercial commodity. Back in 2001, movie companies were rushing to cut images of the World Trade Center from movies like Men in Black II and People I Know. In 2008, a decapitated Statue of Liberty has become the primary marketing iconography for the movie that is "tracking" to be the year's first bona fide blockbuster. (In other words, it'll likely be the most popular American movie since National Treasure 2 and Alvin and the Chipmunks.) Big Apple landmarks blown to smithereens and opaque clouds of debris swirling through the streets of lower Manhattan: How totally awesome is that!

The topicality of the top-secret Cloverfield (which first appeared on moviegoers' buzzometers when an untitled two-minute teaser played before screenings of Transformers last summer) is hardly lost on the film's producer and chief creative personality, J.J. Abrams. He got the idea for the movie while traveling in Japan and promptly brought two longtime collaborators, writer Drew Goddard (a veteran of Abrams' Lost and Alias TV series) and director Matt Reeves (with whom Abrams co-created the immortal Felicity) on board. "We live in a time of great fear," Abrams writes without a lick of irony in the intro to the Cloverfield press notes, adding that "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."

Well, while the entertainment value of Cloverfield is highly negotiable, it's clear that Abrams has consciously aligned himself with those filmmakers — George Romero, Steven Spielberg — who have used the template of a grade-B monster/invasion movie as a stealth vessel for social commentary. And I'd bet good money that Abrams also saw — or at least read about — South Korean director Bong Joon-ho's marvelous 2006 film The Host, in which a mutant sea-creature weaned on the American military's toxic waste climbs on to dry land and spawns massive homeland insecurity. But where those filmmakers all had something meaningful to say about the state of the world and, moreover, about human nature, Abrams doesn't have much to say about anything, even though his characters do their fair share of blathering.

Monstrous: Michael Stahl-David, Lizzy Caplan, and Jessica Lucas run from the beast in Cloverfield.
Monstrous: Michael Stahl-David, Lizzy Caplan, and Jessica Lucas run from the beast in Cloverfield.

Details

Directed by Matt Reeves. Written by Drew Goddard. Starring Michael Stahl-David. T.J. Miller, and Odette Yustman. Rated PG-13.

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In fact, the cheap and opportunistic Cloverfield suggests nothing so much as an earlier Abrams-authored disasterpiece, Armageddon, if it were rewritten by Mumblecore doyen Andrew Bujalski and shot on The Blair Witch Project's dramamine-resistant handycam. The movie begins with an interminable party sequence not unlike the one in Bujalski's Mutual Appreciation, minus the endearingly hapless characters and absurdist brio. It's a going-away fete for Rob (Michael Stahl-David), an upwardly-mobile twentysomething about to leave New York for a VP job at the Tokyo office of some unnamed multinational, and it's the conceit of Cloverfield that we see the teary-eyed farewells — along with everything else that follows — through the lens of a video camera wielded by Rob's goofball friend Hud (T.J. Miller). Never did I think I would so pine for the more mildly assaulting aesthetics of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.

Whiplash-inducing pans and tilts, herky-jerky zooms and random jump cuts are the order of the day here, goosed by the occasional "flashback" — supposedly the video footage Hud is inadvertently recording over — to Rob's month-old fling with the comely Beth (Odette Yustman). And unlike a series of recent films (including Brian De Palma's Redacted and Romero's forthcoming Diary of the Dead) that use subjective cameras as a way of questioning our YouTube'd universe and the trust we put in recorded images, Abrams and Reeves jerk and swish the camera around with little rhyme or reason. It's just another salable gimmick in a movie whose closest kinship to Blair Witch (a genuinely innovative and terrifying work of experimental cinema) may be the genius of its ad campaign.

Finally, somewhere around reel two — and bear in mind that Cloverfield runs all of 72 minutes, not counting its excruciatingly elongated end credits — il mostro makes his belated appearance, shooting fireballs over the skyline and downing the Brooklyn Bridge (again? So soon after I Am Legend?) with one swoop of his scaly tail. Beyond that, Abrams and Reeves forestall a full-body reveal until quite late — along with one wonderfully topsy-turvy effects shot of a sideways-leaning skyscraper, one of the film's only genuinely clever visual ideas.

Alas, it's the Cloverfield screenplay that seems to be out on strike. The plot effectively reduces down to one long slog from Spring Street to Central Park South, as Rob, his brother Jason (Mike Vogel), Hud and two other friends defy all conventional wisdom (as in, get on the next military chopper the hell out of there) and attempt to rescue the trapped Beth from her Columbus Circle apartment. ("Forget about the world and hang on to those people you love the most," a sage Jason — evidently one of the alarming number of Americans who lack a passport — advises Rob just before disaster strikes.) That's the kind of juvenile hero fantasy that got some gullible characters in Frank Darabont's measurably more intelligent man-versus-beast melodrama The Mist picked off early by some very unfriendly tentacles. In the case of Cloverfield, not soon enough.

 
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Neil
Neil

Went to see with wife last week. I actually tried to stick it out for the first 15-20 minutes hoping it would turn around. Only to find that it was my wife and I who turned around walking right out of the theatre requesting a full refund. It is the first time I have ever walked out of a movie in 40 years. This movie goes far beyond pathetic. I cant believe the movie industry would put out such a piece of trash. They are really scraping the bucket with this one. Save yourself some money and lots of aggravation.

Jim Terr
Jim Terr

Scott - on a smaller scale...

Eclectic filmmaker passes 100,000 YouTube mark Santa Fe, NM documentary and short-film maker Jim Terr has racked up over 100,000 views of his videos on YouTube.com, and has posted a video called "A Hundred Thousand YouTube Views" to tout that accomplishment. While there are individual videos on YouTube which have gained millions of views, Terr is proud to have built his viewership by posting a wide variety of videos -- 62 to date -- beginning 16 months ago with a video called "Santa Fe Stops," showing vehicles speeding through a Santa Fe stop sign. Terr videos produced as far back as 1992 are included on his YouTube "channel." The "Hundred Thousand" video features a hot boogie-woogie piano background track by former Santa Fe resident Clay Cotton, now stricken with Multiple Sclerosis. Terr hopes that exposure of the new video will increase CD sales for Cotton, and says he never tired of Cotton's piano playing in the hundreds of times he heard it while editing. "In fact, it got better and better."37 of Terr's shorts - including previews of two forthcoming videos -- are excerpted for the "Hundred Thousand" collection, ranging from actor and comedy sketches, political satire and commentary, crafts and trades, documentary excerpts, proposed feature film "trailers," advertising parodies, local cultural events and restaurant visits, interviews, live performance excerpts and musician portraits.Little sound was included on the music clips excerpted in the new video, however, due to clashes with the background piano track. In fact, Terr's most-viewed video, "One Year Old Child Prodigy Piano Genius" , with over 50,000 views, was not even included in the new collection. Such celebrities as authors Tony Hillerman and Douglas Preston, humorist Dave Barry, actor Kevin Pollak and NPR broadcaster Scott Simon are included in the videos, as well as stills of and references to President Bush, Valerie Plame Wilson and others. Videos added to Terr's YouTube repertoire in the past week alone include "J.Lo, MD" , "Jimbug: Folk Artist" , "A Hundred Thousand YouTube Views" , "Author Douglas Preston discusses his novel, BLASPHEMY" , "My Dad, the Republican" , and "Jim Terr interview re Santa Fe Farmers Market video ". In the latter piece , Terr admits that the production of short videos has gotten to be a bit of an obsession, but he credits and thanks YouTube for making it so easy for videomakers to post and to find videos. Terr has mostly not taken advantage of other video-posting sites thus far.

He has also posted the Santa Fe-related videos on his own www.SantaFeShorts.com site, which links to the YouTube videos. # # #

 

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