Sunday, January 20, 2008

Cloverfield / *** (PG-13)

Rob Hawkins: Michael Stahl-David
Lily Ford: Jessica Lucas
Marlena Diamond: Lizzy Caplan
Hud Platt: T.J. Miller
Jason Hawkins: Mike Vogel
Beth McIntyre: Odette Yustman

Paramount Pictures presents a film directed by Matt Reeves. Written by Drew Goddard. Running time: 90 min. Rated PG-13 (for violence, terror and disturbing images).

“Cloverfield” may very well be the most anticipated January release since the re-release of “Star Wars” in 1997. If the title seems unfamiliar, well that was all part of the promotional game. Paramount ran one of the slickest advertising campaigns since “The Blair Witch Project” with viral Web sites, false rumors, false titles, an intriguing poster depicting a headless Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor, a trailer that may have just been a gimmick and total mystery over just what the movie was about. Some speculated that it might have had some connection to producer J.J. Abrams’ hit television show “Lost.” Eventually the title was leaked along with the fact that it was some sort of “Godzilla”-styled monster movie.

With a build up like that, it would be hard for the film to live up to the hype. It doesn’t quite, but in its own right it is a thrilling adventure that doesn’t cheat on its premise. I am not revealing too much by confirming that it is a monster flick about a giant creature attacking New York City seen entirely through the camcorder of some partygoers trying to survive the melee. This point-of-view approach is a gimmick that nearly brings the movie down by trapping the filmmakers into a style not conducive to moving the story along, but once the monster finally attacks the city the momentum of the action kicks the format into gear.

Director Matt Reeves and screenwriter Drew Goddard (both veterans of Abrams’ television projects “Felicity”, “Alias”, and “Lost”) are wise to realize the key to telling a monster story from the point of view of some of the victims running away in the street is to give these characters lives outside of the attack. However, they spend too much time establishing these fairly basic characters in an extended going away party for the first twenty minutes of the film.

We meet Rob (Michael Stahl-David, NBC’s “The Black Donnellys”), who is being thrown the party after taking a job in Japan. Beth (Odette Yustman, ABC’s “October Road”) is Rob’s best friend; estranged since an intimate encounter they had a few weeks prior. The party is thrown by Rob’s brother Jason (Mike Vogel, “Poseidon”) and his brother’s girlfriend Lily (Jessica Lucas, “The Covenant”). Hud (T.J. Miller, ABC’s “Carpoolers”) is the best friend handling the camerawork. And Marlena (Lizzy Caplan, CBS’s “The Class”) is a stranger invited to the party by an acquaintance. These characters could have been introduced in half the time, but once the monster attack starts, the action comes quickly, and the events unfold in a fascinating manner.

The opening moments of the attack on the city evoke memories of 9/11 with that particular handheld version of chaos and the destruction of the world’s richest city’s stone and concrete monuments. Then we see early news reports that reflect speculations of what might be happening versus the unimaginable truth of which we are all aware. The characters give the sense that they’ve been through this before, which is probably true for some of the actors. Then Reeves teases the audience and characters with very brief glimpses of the creature. The adrenaline is up and never really drops from that point on. There are some amazing shots captured with the handheld photography, such as the best shot of the creature in the first half of the film when poor Hud just narrowly escapes death by stomping when ducking into a subway station.

The handheld camera work and personal point of view shots give the film another connection to “The Blair Witch Project” beyond its inventive Internet advertising campaign. The bouncing camera work gives that same eeriness and feeling that events are out of the control of the characters. It could also cause problems for audience members with motion sickness. Also like “Blair Witch,” the characters offer the audience only their own personal knowledge into the events they are witnessing. The filmmakers wisely avoid the typical disaster movie character who exists only to explain how and why the crisis has come about.

There are some plot contrivances to keep the characters in peril. Most obviously, the main group is separated from Beth when the story begins, and Rob feels he must stay in the city to save her. This works perfectly fine with the love story that is established between these two, but the other characters are presented with several opportunities to escape their fates without taking them. Just a little bit more imagination could have provided them with logical reasons to stay in Manhattan.

Contrivances aside, “Cloverfield” makes for an exciting ride. It isn’t necessarily a fright fest, but it is fast-paced and intense. The filmmakers come up with some lasting images to go along with their simple story and they don’t complicate their premise with unnecessary explanations of the action. “Cloverfield” is evidence of the lasting impression “The Blair Witch Project” has had on the world of filmmaking, but it provides the thrills and action some claim that horror picture lacked. And with no forced conclusions, the door is certainly open for whatever sequels the box office receipts demand.

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