Review: Cloverfield

The emperor has no clothes. Or better yet, the monster has perfect focus?

It's difficult to review "Cloverfield" (IMDb listing) without at least mentioning the buzz-guzzling hype machine producer J.J. Abrams kicked off with the arrival of the teaser trailer last summer; a cryptic piece of footage that sent the tails of geeks and bloggers everywhere wagging with gale force velocity. It was a tantalizing glimpse of forthcoming havoc. However, now having viewed the entire film, perhaps a peep was all that was needed. Just a preview to get the blood flowing. Basically a 70-minute YouTube video, "Cloverfield" has all the head-rattling jolt and dramatic verisimilitude of a prank phone call.

Assuming the POV of a video camera employed to capture the farewell party for lovelorn Rob (Michael Stahl-David), the night is turned into a living hell when a Godzilla-like creature starts to tear up Manhattan, leaving the city a wide-awake nightmare of decimating army attacks, brutal monster stompage, and assorted 9/11esque references of destruction. With camera in tow, a small group of partygoers scour the city for Rob's spurned ex-girlfriend, finding little hope as the creature's rampage blocks all exits.

"Cloverfield" is an ambitious film, endeavoring to resuscitate the panic of seeing a building-sized creature annihilate a city after decades of bad monster movies have reduced such sights to giggles. Its heart is in the right "Blair Witch" place, but the execution is all wrong (not to mention a little late, coming after doppelganger "The Mist"), reducing the scares to puzzled yawns.

Director Matt Reeves is armed only with a "single" DV camera to cover the action, and while I applaud "Cloverfield" for trying to find ways to widen the scope of such a limited viewpoint, the routes taken are strangely ineffective; it fumbles the wallop of citywide alarm and tarnishes the "reality" this film is so desperate to abuse. The picture's concept is that the audience is watching a video of the monster attack found after the mayhem, but instead of facing that stark viewpoint head on with punishing cinema verite cartwheeling, "Cloverfield" uses painfully obvious editing tricks, employs peculiar time jumps, and introduces the ludicrous idea that the tape in the camera is somehow screwy, which allows for cringe-worthy backstory flashbacks to Rob and his woman in happier times already committed to the cassette. Now there's some serious storytelling desperation at work.

The artifice wouldn't be nearly as maddening if it wasn't so stiffly calculated. Reeves is clumsy peddling the drama, which relies on rotten actors doing the last thing any performer of limited means should do: panic improvisations. The exposition scenes are crude and unintentionally comical, not to mention there's little need for a story or characters at all, making the first 15 minutes of "Cloverfield" feel like a videotaped acting exercise. It's like one of those MTV "reality" shows, only with a monster arriving for a 10-minute cameo (a pretty weak MacGuffin in my book). It also doesn't help the film's crucial suspension of disbelief demand when Reeves and Abrams cast well-known faces in the lead roles. I found it difficult to lose myself in the fantasy when watching the goth chick from "Mean Girls" or spy character actor Chris Mulkey as an Army commander.

Of course there's a massive amount of shaky-cam footage ("Bourne Ultimatum," I owe you an apology). With a DV camera in play, how could there not be? Oddly, the handheld jostling is kept at bay during the special effect sequences; again breaking a fourth-wall of sorts, letting the audience take a good, hard look at something the characters should rightfully be sprinting away from. It's minor, but these little divots in behavioral accuracy really start to stack up by the film's ridiculous ending.

There will be many who will pour over the minutiae of "Cloverfield" for months to come, swearing there's subtext to debate and hidden details to uncover, arranging a puzzle where there is none. I wish them luck digging in this shallow sandbox of empty thrills.

Filmfodder Grade: C-