January 24, 2008
A group of 20somethings hand-wring their way through a party full of youngster drama ó that is until explosions, shaking buildings and the meteor-like head of the Statue of Liberty landing in the middle of a Manhattan street turn their big night into an experience of sheer terror in Cloverfield, a monster movie that actually scares the bejeebies out of you.
The trailers for this movie have been utterly vague about what happens and I tend to think thatís a good thing. So, SPOILER ALERT. Reviewing movies is my job but in this case I think the less you know, the better the scares when you see the film.
On a shaky, hand-held camera, a boy named Rob (Michael Stahl-David) and a girl named Beth (Odette Yustman) wake up after a night together and make flirty young-love comments while planning a day in Coney Island. A few minutes of this and we cut to a boy named Jason (Mike Vogel) and a girl named Lily (Jessica Lucas), fighting about a party theyíre putting on that night for Rob, Jasonís brother, who is about to leave New York City for a job in Japan. Lily wants Jason to film people saying nice things about Rob. Jason pawns the task off on his friend Hud (T.J. Miller), convincing him that it will give him an excuse to talk to Marlena (Lizzy Caplan), a girl Hud likes.
All is a low-rent episode of Friends until, while Rob sulks on the fire escape after fighting with Beth, thereís an explosion in the distance and a shake to the groupís building. The kids run to the TV and then run to the roof, trying to figure out whatís happening. Suddenly, more explosions, with debris flying everywhere, the kids run off the roof and into the street. More crashing, more explosions, the incoming Statue of Liberty head, buildings crashing to the ground and then they see Ö well, they donít know what theyíre seeing, even Hud, who has the camera, still running, and can rewind. Clouds of dust, papers everywhere ó running, screaming. More explosions, kids running for cover in the first open door as clouds of dust and smoke come racing through the streets.
With the exception of the part where a stunned Marlena says something was eating the people, those first scenes of destruction are shot-to-the-core terrifying for reasons that have nothing to do with giant monsters.
The kids hear more noises and they decide to get out of the city. That is less than successful and then theyíre forced to regroup and consider where to go, who to save.
Without giving away too much, I will say this is a monster movie and you do eventually see the monster. The first time the movie gave us a full tight shot of its face, I jumped. Like a sound that goes straight to your gut, spooking you out before your head can really take it in (personally, air raid sirens always freak me out just a bit, regardless of the context), there is something about the appearance of the monsterís head that just shocked me. Even more shocking? Itís all still scary the second time you see it. What would I do in this situation, I thought. Hmm, Iím going to say, run and scream. Yes, run and scream a lot.
Itís not just the shades of Sept. 11 and the surprisingly creepy CGI that make Cloverfield a great paranoia thriller. Itís the sufficiently believable human emotions of its not particularly recognizable actors (I kind of remember Lucas from the short-lived Life as We Know It but thatís about it). Itís the realistic use of inappropriate humor and the mix of selfish and selfless behavior. Itís the smart writing and the solid use of what could have been just a cutesy device of having the camera ďheldĒ by the characters. The movie doesnít let you off the hook with monster camp ó it goes straight for the thing-in-the-dark terror. B+
Rated PG-13 for violence, terror and disturbing images. Directed by Matt Reeves and written by Drew Goddard, Cloverfield is an hour and 24 minutes long and is distributed in wide release by Paramount Pictures.