Last summer, while sitting in the theater waiting for “Transformers” to start, viewers were impressed by a trailer for what would come to be called “Cloverfield”: A handheld video camera documents one man’s final night in town, and it looks like we’re in for a cute indie. But suddenly an explosion rocks New York City, and next thing you know, the Statue of Liberty’s head lands directly in the foreground. The trailer, part of a successful viral marketing campaign, caused intense curiosity about what was to be released on “1.18.08.” Unfortunately, the only new thing I gleaned from seeing the actual movie was what the attacker looked like — and even that information is suspect.
“Cloverfield” tells the tale of a group of friends who gather to say bon voyage to Tokyo-bound buddy Rob (Michael Stahl-David). Best friend Hud (T.J. Miller) is filming the party for Rob’s future viewing pleasure, but he soon finds a new purpose when a monster attacks NYC and he has the means to document it. The film is shown from Hud’s camera’s perspective as he, Rob and two others attempt first to rescue Rob’s trapped lover and then vacate the city before the military blows it to kingdom come.
Yet what sounds like the perfect blend of thriller and avant-garde (cheap) production ends up extremely disappointing. The shaky, nauseating camera work (think “Blair Witch”) means that in many shots it is incredibly difficult to ascertain what is actually happening on screen besides total chaos.
The movie is only named “Cloverfield” because no better name could be found — much in the same way that neither a fitting nor an engaging plot was ever developed. It seems as if J.J. Abrams just woke up one day and thought, “a monster attacks NYC,” and stopped there. Because our point of view is with Hud and those on the ground, the only information we learn is that the attacker is a monster that sheds smaller, similarly evil creatures. Also, the monster eats people. Where did this monster come from? What the hell is it? Why is it attacking Manhattan? — all questions that go unanswered.
The monster does not even have consistent characteristics throughout the movie. It causes an explosion, though what is exploding is unclear, and the monster never again decides to use its explosive super powers. And even more confusing is the destruction of the Brooklyn Bridge by a tentacle, when the full aerial shots of the attack reveal that no, it has no tentacles at all. Maybe there is a whole posse of monsters waiting for their shot at the big screen?
As an action film, however, some scenes do have you on the edge of your seat. In one scene, as the main characters manoeuvre through pitch-black subway tunnels, the audience trembles in horror of what lurks in the dark. And the shots of the military’s fruitless attempts at bringing the terror to its knees are, in short, impressive and relevant.
The blending of handheld shots and computer effects is also done in such a way that the attack looks almost believable.
Watching the head of the Statue of Liberty flying through the air looks real enough to produce shivers, and the money shots of the monster at the end mixed with a shaking hand make you wonder whether the Department of Defense actually is hiding this footage from us.
Ultimately, though, “Cloverfield” can best be summarized by a fellow moviegoer’s irritated shout at the conclusion: “ARE YOU SERIOUS?!?!”