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Cloverfield (2008)

What do you get when you cross Godzilla with Lost? You get a terrifying, chaotic, and often confusing Kaiju movie that dumps you into the action without warning and barely stops to let the audience, let alone any of the cast, stop to take a breath or figure out just the hell is going on. And for bonus points, the action is being filmed in-universe by one of the characters, offering a true worm’s-eye view of the action.

Cloverfield is an American disaster/monster movie directed by Matt Reeves, produced by J. J. Abrams, and written by Drew Goddard. It stars Michael “Uncle Nino” Stahl-David, Mike “Poseidon” Vogel, T. J. “Get Him to the Greek” Miller, Odette “Kindergarten Cop” Yustman, Jessica “The L Word” Lucas, Lizzy “Hot Tub Time Machine” Caplan, and Ben “The Perfect Man” Feldman. Oh, yeah… and a huge frapping monster. The film is presented as footage found in the wreckage of what had once been Central Park, as part of an investigation code-named “Cloverfield”.

The main story starts during a going-away party for Rob Hawkins (Stahl-David) hosted by Rob’s brother Jason (Vogel) and Jason’s girlfriend Lily (Lucas), being videotaped by Hud (Miller) over previous footage of Rob’s trip to Coney Island with Beth (Yustman) a month earlier. During the party, Hud gets taped testimonials from all the guests and tries unsuccessfully flirts with Marlena (Caplan). In contrast to the happy earlier footage, Rob and Beth have clearly grown apart, and she leaves the party early after fighting with Rob.

Not long after this, however, the building is rocked by an apparent earthquake, and the power briefly goes out. Trying to get some answers, Rob tunes into the local news, which reports that an oil tanker has capsized near Liberty Island. When the partygoers head to the roof to see what they can learn about the disaster, an explosion that takes out most of lower Manhattan forces them to evacuate the building, where they see the scratched and mangled head of the Statue of Liberty skid to a landing in the street outside. Hud’s camera catches a glimpse of the foreclaw of a monster easily big enough to be responsible, and from there all answers stop as the dwindling party of New Yorkers races to find shelter or escape Manhattan Island, while a monster rampages through the city outside.

While not everybody will be a fan of the shaky-cam style of filmmaking, it does help to capture how terrifying and chaotic a monster attack of this nature would truly be for all the “extras” in a traditional rampaging monster movie. No answers are given. Nobody knows what the hell this thing is. Nobody is sure how to stop it. Everybody just wants to survive, and they are frighteningly aware of how few of them will.

In the twenty or so minutes we have to get to know the core cast, we do get a nice cross-section of who they are: Marlena, the introverted goth chick; Rob and Beth, the romance gone sour; Lily, trying to keep everyone together; and Hud, exactly the sort of crazy bastard that you would expect to keep a camcorder going through all this. Additional material on the official website offers some insights about the timeline and what the creature might be, but in my opinion the movie as presented is effective without knowing all the answers.

If you like your monster movies to come with steady camerawork and satisfying explanations, you will hate this movie. However, if you like to come up with your own theories or see what explanations others have come up with, and are a fan of the cinema verite style of filmmaking or J. J. Abrams’ work in general, I recommend Cloverfield. While the Japanese may have pioneered the “giant monster attacking a major city” movie, Abrams has definitely paid effective homage to it.

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