From left, Rob (Michael Stahl-David), Marlena (Lizzy Caplan) and Lily (Jessica Lucas) are on the run from a terrorizing monster in “Cloverfield.”
Following months of cleverly controlled hype, viral marketing campaigns and Internet chatter, J.J. Abrams’ “Cloverfield” plowed into theaters with disorienting pacing, jarring jolts and a big, ugly beastie plodding its way through Manhattan.
While the monster might well be close kin to the one from the 1953 flick “The Beast from 20,000 Leagues,” creature-feature clichés don’t spoil this caper. From the first frame, the filmmakers instigate the illusion.
There are no opening credits, just a rather official-looking preamble reporting the source of the subsequent video footage. In the background, barely noticeable, is a warning that the film is military property and should not be duplicated.
What follows is a video diary – mostly shot by hapless Hudson “Hud” Platt (T.J. Miller) – which initially focuses on a going-away party for Rob Hawkins (Michael Stahl-David) who is about to leave for (where else?) Japan. Hud has been asked to film testimonials from each of the party-goers, wishing Rob well on his new job.
In the middle of the revelry, the building shakes. Hud’s handheld video camera settles on the television just long enough to record a news bulletin reporting an earthquake and a capsized freighter in New York Harbor.
The situation deteriorates rapidly from this point, with explosions in the distance, military jets flying low over Manhattan and the Statue of Liberty’s head crashing into the crowded city street in front of Rob’s apartment.
It may sound like a half-dozen other disaster film scenarios, and it’s fair to say that plenty of monsters have crawled ashore in the past. What makes “Cloverfield” original is its presentation. The audience’s collective perception is limited to Hud’s handheld camera.
Since the viewer only sees what Hud sees – and Hud and his friends spend a lot of time running away from things – the effect is disturbing, claustrophobic and harrowing. A critical jog in the storyline – Rob and the others have to journey across town in the midst of all this mayhem to rescue Beth McIntyre (Odette Yustman) – provides plenty of opportunities for Hud’s camera to capture glimpses of the rampaging monster.
And, unlike the monstrously bad 1998 Hollywood “Godzilla” dud, the special effects in “Cloverfield” work well. At no point does the movie stumble and give the audience pause to think that what they’re seeing isn’t real … and that’s an impressive feat.
Speaking of the monster, much prerelease speculation went into identifying just what it was that Abrams’ planned to unleash on Manhattan. Now that the movie is in theaters, it can safely be reported that the monster is … well, a monster. Known for the secretive surreptitious plots surrounding his television show “Lost,” Abrams only reveals enough of the story to keep it interesting and exciting.
For those who want “Cloverfield” to be a modern take on Japanese daikaiju films featuring an H.R. Giger-esque Godzilla, there’s no reason for them not to believe that. For those fans of H.P. Lovecraft who imagined a Cthulhu takes Manhattan scenario, there’s no reason not to believe that the monster might be a Great Old One.
Because of its setting in Manhattan, “Cloverfield” has earned some condemnation for allegedly exploiting the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. These unreasonable censures could be (and have been, in some cases) levied at several other films. Catastrophe on a grandiose scale has always been a popular motif in Hollywood.
What “Cloverfield” does develop fully is the pervasive paranoia lingering just beneath the surface of a society which has watched several large-scale tragedies unfold, in real time, on television sets. Disasters once easily dissociated by distance are now made more tangible by omnipresent photojournalists reporting to 24-hour cable news channels.
The monster in “Cloverfield,” therefore, may well be the potential cataclysm perched just the other side of midnight, ready to crawl from obscurity and manifest itself in tomorrow’s headlines.