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Cloverfield: Apocalypse at street level

by Glen Baity

Since the makers of Cloverfield have gone to such lengths to keep its finer points under wraps, I’ll start this review with a firm “spoilers ahead.” The less you know about this film the better, even though, plot-wise, there’s not a lot to know. But if you want the maximum amount of enjoyment for your movie-going dollar, take my advice: Read no further.

If you’re still with me, you’ve probably by now deduced that Cloverfield is indeed a monster movie unlike most monster movies. It starts simply enough: In the middle of Rob Hawkins’ (Michael Stahl-David) emotional going-away party, something like an earthquake hits Manhattan. The lights go out. Buildings crumble. The Statue of Liberty’s head is ripped off and punted across Central Park.

Okay, it’s not exactly like an earthquake. In due course, it is revealed that a giant monster of unknown origin has risen out of the New York harbor and is presently rampaging through the city. People scramble to get away, except Rob and a handful of his buddies, who head toward the chaos to rescue Rob’s sorta-girlfriend Beth (Odette Yustman).

All of this is captured on what has to be the world’s most durable camcorder, which is continuously flung in the air, dropped on the ground and knocked into walls as the characters flee from the towering beast and its spider-like henchmen, which have teeth like nails and a taste for human flesh.

The film is comprised entirely of footage “recovered” from the former Central Park, and the effect is inevitably like a much more frantically-paced Blair Witch Project with better acting and an actual, physical monster that you get to see.

There’s also an interesting conceit – that this video, which was meant to be a going-away present for Rob before he heads off for a new job in Japan, is being taped over a video of the one and only perfect day in Rob and Beth’s short relationship. So several times in the middle of the film, the chaos cuts away to an idyllic scene of the two having breakfast, or on a carnival ride, smiling the whole time.

These little moments give the film an unexpected emotional weight, and underscore the fact that the film is extraordinarily well directed by Matt Reeves, who manages to make Cloverfield feel like an authentic home movie while moving the plot forward in a fairly conventional way. Despite the natural shakiness of the camera work, it’s never very hard to tell what’s going on, or to keep hold of the visual thread.

I also love the way the monster is revealed in pieces. Producer JJ Abrams has done the near-impossible by keeping photos of it off the internet. Consequently, you get to share in the characters’ shock when you get your first solid look. Enjoy it, though, as those long shots are few and far between; more often you’ll just see a massive foot crashing onto a city street, or an arm swatting at an F-15 amid the New York skyline.

The film’s structure does have its limits. If you got motion sickness in Blair Witch, bring your Dramamine to Cloverfield – this one jerks all over the place for a solid hour and a half. Also, when the tape runs out, it’s out. Don’t expect a tidy explanation of where the monster came from, what happens to the main characters who ostensibly live until the end of the film, or what goes on after the footage runs out. Despite any attachments you might have to the people onscreen, what you’re watching is made up as an artifact, not a proper film; as a result, it ends as abruptly as it starts.

But the whole film feels as utterly real as a giant monster rampage ever could. The genius of Cloverfield is in how it finds a new angle for a type of film that has been done mostly the same way for more than a half-century. This is a truly fresh take, a monster movie from the ground up, which succeeds by using the terrified onlooker as more than a prop.

To comment on this article, send your e-mail to glen.baity@gmail.com.

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