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Shaken Up



With blood streaming out of her eyes and nose, "I feel dizzy" seemed a bit of a redundant declaration. But I felt her pain. The young, fainting partygoer was whisked away by Army medics in a triage unit and quarantined behind some blue vinyl sheeting before exploding in a gush of blood.

I feared the same thing was happening to me, even though I hadn't been bitten by a miniature version of those arachnoid creatures from "Starship Troopers." I had, however, just sat through two-thirds of a very jerky movie, ostensibly filmed by Hud (T.J. Miller), another partygoer, armed with a digital camera handed off to him along with instructions to play party documentarian.

Up to this point Hud has been documenting more than he bargained for, trailing behind Rob (Michael Stahl-David), his brother, Jason (Mike Vogel), Jason's girlfriend, Lily (Jessica Lucas), and Marlena (Lizzy Caplan) as the five flee a large entity attacking Manhattan. While everyone scrambles, various buildings get stomped as Hud provides the unfolding footage with such narration as "Oh my God!" and "Dude!"

The movie is as shaky as the dialogue, literally, with every hand-held moment provided by the goofy but reasonably frightened and unprepared Hud. Though probably better viewed with some THC and Dramamine, I had a difficult time enjoying myself while motion sickness mounted with every stumble and drop of the camera. God help you if the movie comes on during your next flight.

Directed by Matt Reeves from a script by Drew Goddard, "Cloverfield" begins with pre-roll captions proclaiming this footage is now U.S. military property, found in an area "formerly known as Central Park," information intended to be an ominous but not-so-subtle clue for what's to come. The camera is owned by Rob, who is about to leave for a new job in Japan. His friends are throwing him a party at someone's spacious downtown loft (main characters always have swanky New York apartments no matter how vérité the cinema they are in, don't they?). During the party Rob becomes morose at the sight of a love interest, Beth (Odette Yustman), canoodling over the sake. His brother and Hud follow him out to the fire escape for a sympathy session. Halfway through their bro-down, midtown explodes on the horizon. Everyone goes outside in time to see the head of the Statue of Liberty roll down the street and the Chrysler building crumble. ("Dude!")

Comparisons with "The Blair Witch Project" -- first-person perspective, hand-held camera, lack of name actors — are easy, but too reductive. This isn't, as some critics have pegged it, simply "Blair Witch" meets "Godzilla." The new movie is technically superior to all versions of the latter, and it contains a much more sophisticated and serpentine narrative structure than the former. The tape Hud uses previously held a recording of Rob and Beth staring dreamily into each other's eyes on the morning after a tryst, which we learn came after a lengthy courtship. This allows the unedited footage to jump back and forth between times naturally but informatively, telling a story with varied points of view even though the point of view is otherwise limited.

The device, or gimmick, or whatever you want to call it, is ingeniously employed, making "Cloverfield" as clever as it is vapid. Often in such movies characters and their motivations feel created after all the brainpower was spent on the action. Yet here, owing to the nature of the project, the people and their plot are so shallow they appear like magnets on the refrigerator — completely independent of the machine.

Laughable contrivances like Rob racing uptown to rescue his girl and unoriginal monsters notwithstanding, the movie is fun if you can stomach it. On the other hand, you might also leave the theater wondering if such brainpower might not have been put to a pursuit more worthwhile than making yet another fantasy story about another rampage through New York by another catastrophe.

A quick Internet review of the backgrounds of the filmmakers show people with a lot of ambition who've already proved how they plan to use it. (Producer J.J. Abrams' trailer for the new "Star Trek" movie comes with most screenings.) Hollywood is gripped by a revenge of the nerds, armed with comic books, video games and reissued DVDs full of creatures from black lagoons. "Cloverfield" is proof that not only a digitized New York but also we, too, are doomed to be trampled for years to come. (PG-13) 85 min. S

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