After an intense viral marketing campaign, Cloverfield is finally upon us. So was it worth the wait and hype? Not really, no. A ‘Gojira’ film shot like The Blair Witch Project and with distasteful overtones of September 11, there’s scarcely any more story to it than that and it loses momentum long before its brief 73 minutes have elapsed.
Still, the fact that it’s a monster movie relayed almost exclusively through point-of-view footage and with a relatively small budget of $25million, suggests that stylistically at least, Cloverfield is not so much breaking new ground as razing it irrevocably. Focusing on the human scale of events rather than the macro perspective of epic disaster makes it distinctive. But with such shallow characterisation, once the monster is revealed to be a generic slimy beastie, interest wanes. Whether a string of low-budget, copycat movies, or Godzilla forbid, a sequel will follow, remains to be seen.
The brainchild of Lost producer JJ Abrams and director Matt Reeves, the film centres on a bunch of twentysomethings at a going away party in Manhattan. Rob (Michael Stahl-David) is moving to Japan and leaving behind Beth (Odette Yustman), the best friend he’s not so secretly in love with. Rob’s brother Jason (Mike Vogel) and his girlfriend Lily (Jessica Lucas) place a camcorder for filming the event into the hands of Hud (T.J Miller), an irritating dork who has eyes for the nonplussed Marlena (Lizzy Caplan) and who establishes for the entire gathering that Rob and Beth have slept together. Beth leaves abruptly with her date and Rob is left distraught.
Suddenly, an explosion rips through downtown New York and brings everyone to a standstill. Spilling onto the street outside, the revellers are stunned to see the Statue of Liberty’s head go bouncing past. Somewhat appropriately, they raise their camera phones to record the incident. With only the briefest glimpse of their surprise attacker, at this moment only a giant amorphous blob, the chief characters are off and running.
After a terrified phone call from Beth, Rob resolves to head back towards the carnage and rescue her from her apartment, dragging the others along with him. Throughout, the viewers’ perspective is limited to Hud’s, ensuring imagination fills in the gaps and ratchets up the terror. To make matters a little scarier, the monster also secretes spider-like parasites that fatally infect, prompting one of the film’s better sequences in a subway tunnel.
At first, the novelty of the footage is exciting, but whenever the pace of headlong flight slows, the characters are too insubstantial to care about, with Rob and Beth’s love story a lacklustre emotional centre. Everyone is just another body to be picked off by the monster, whose motives for attacking the city remain unexplained.
Unforgivably perhaps, the imagery and horror of the film can never be disassociated from September 11, with television screens announcing “New York Under Attack” as yet another building falls. Monsters have stomped through Manhattan in films before, but the echoes here are too reminiscent to seem anything but calculated. There could have been some justification if Cloverfield made any comment on terrorism or media coverage of it, but exploiting the pain of so many for cheap cinematic thrills seems tasteless at best.
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