Imaginative Cloverfield a Ferociously Thrilling Found-Footage Creature-Feature
Rob (Michael Stahl-David) should have left a day sooner. Then he wouldn’t have had to discover the woman he loves, Beth (Odette Yustman), is dating someone else. He learns this at the somewhat unfocused and chaotic farewell party thrown for him by his well-meaning brother Jason (Mike Vogel) and his girlfriend Lily (Jessica Lucas). Sure, Rob’s got a great job waiting for him in Japan, but even that can’t change the fact he’s going to jump on a plane in the morning with a broken heart.
Then there’s a giant monster that has seemingly decided to choose Rob’s last night in New York to rain chaos and destruction down upon the city. That’s a bit of a bummer, too. The military can’t stop the bloody thing, and nothing anyone throws at the beast appears to be able to stop it from ripping the Big Apple to shreds.
With Jason, Lily, best friend Hud (T.J. Miller) – who decides to film the rest of the night for posterity – and new acquaintance Marlena (Lizzy Caplan) by his side, Rob forgoes joining the exiting masses and instead heads straight into the danger zone to save a wounded Beth. But with the military’s battle with the creature growing worse by the second, if they don’t get to the young woman soon, none of them are going to make it out of the city alive.
Cloverfield is undeniably silly. Producer J.J. Abrams, director Matt Reeves, and writer Drew Goddard have taken films like Godzilla and It Came from Beneath the Sea and thrown them into a The Blair Witch Project meat grinder. It is not a film full of profound insights or deep meditations on the human condition. It isn’t going to move audiences to tears or impart some vital piece of philosophical wisdom they didn’t even know they needed to hear.
What it is going to do is scare the hell out of them, which is exactly what this lean, mean, terror-fueled machine was meant to do. Playing on inherent fears fueled by a world caught up in a maelstrom of terrorism and war, Reeves traps the viewer inside a scenario that’s freakishly spiraling out of control. The audience is as clueless and as frightened as the protagonists, comprehending just as much (or maybe just as little?) as the few survivors do by the film’s conclusion.
Cloverfield uses its Harryhausen-inspired storyline to subtly evoke dread and terror in a way that does not feel exploitive. By using old-school monster movie conventions, this thriller gives the modern world a set of teeth, a slew of menacing claws, and a bunch of carnivorous youngsters ready to rip everything and everyone to pieces, and by doing so becomes viscerally disturbing and yet also surprisingly comforting in almost equal measure.
Listen, I doubt anyone involved with this is directly making any sort of political commentary. It is also obvious that scenes of billowing clouds of smoke hurtling down the streets of New York and sights of buildings crashing into rumble can’t help but evoke painful memories.
But Reeves has made a bold and fiercely compelling saga of pandemonium and survival. By the time events concluded, I couldn’t help but feel like this story had sprung forth from deep inside the national psyche, forcing the viewer to engage in potentially uncomfortable conversations that could prove to be hauntingly cathartic in the long run.
Not that we should be taking any of this too seriously. At its heart, this is still a digitally shot, handheld found-footage throwback to an era of filmmaking that’s sadly come and gone. For a blissfully exhausting, fast and furious 80 minutes, Reeves pays homage to 1950s giant monster classics while also imaginatively making the genre deviously his own. Cloverfield brings down the house, and that’s exactly as it should be.
Film Rating: 3½ (out of 4)