An old-fashioned monster movie dressed up in trendy new threads, “Cloverfield” plays like “The Blair Witch Project” meets “Godzilla,” as it charts via camcorder the desperate efforts of some twentysomething Soho scenesters to steer clear of a gigantic beast laying waste to Manhattan. Despite its indie-flavored shooting style, first-rate visual effects, reasonable intensity factor, nihilistic attitude and post-9/11 anxiety overlay, this punchy sci-fier is, in the end, not much different from all the marauding creature features that have come before it. But the Paramount release will be lapped up by thrill-seeking young auds everywhere for monstrous initial biz, spurred by an Internet-driven campaign that’s been stoking fan interest for months.
The initial teaser that triggered the Web-based anticipation for producer J.J. Abrams’ latest creation showed a sexy downtown party being suddenly interrupted by thunderous sounds, and then by the sight of massive urban explosions. The specter of some colossal unknown force destroying life as everyone knows it seemed real and terrifying, especially as it all unfolded a subway stop or two away from the World Trade Center site.
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But “Cloverfield” turns out to be less “24” and more “The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms,” becoming increasingly comfortable, even reassuring the more you see the actual perpetrator. Nasty as the critter is — and it does seem to unleash eons’ worth of hatred for humanity, although its origins are unspecified — its very nature as a walking, stalking being suggests it can somehow be killed by conventional means.
So while the film is cleverly and resourcefully made (allegedly for a mere $25 million), as well as both tense and intense, it doesn’t provoke sheer terror and never pushes things to the point where you want to look away. Pic aims for a level of emotional involvement, but the characters here have no more substance than they ever do in films constructed around a group of disposable nonentities meant to be methodically reduced in number by a bloodthirsty behemoth.
After some ominous deep rumblings and fleeting reference to an “area formerly known as Central Park,” action begins in a high-rise condo overlooking the park, where a young man with a video camera (the date is recorded as April 27) captures the scene of the previous night’s romantic fulfillment, as the young lady in question remains sleeping in the early morning light.
Then it’s May 22, and preparations are under way for a farewell bash for Rob (Michael Stahl-David), who, in an undoubted nod to “Godzilla,” is leaving for a job in Japan. Before he arrives, Rob’s brother Jason (Mike Vogel) records video testimonials from assorted guests, including party babe Lily (Jessica Lucas) and guarded semi-acquaintance Marlena (Lizzy Caplan).
Snippets of conversation reveal Rob has never again contacted Beth (Odette Yustman), the girl from the opening scene, who summarily shows up with another guy — much to Rob’s distress. Just as the emotional steam from this conflict is ready to blow, all hell breaks loose outside and, after viewing the initial devastation from the roof, the vacuous hipsters put the party on hold in favor of saving their skins.
This early action, as the group joins the panicking, confused and injured hordes on the dark streets, where the head of the Statue of Liberty has been unceremoniously dumped, is the best stuff in the picture; something dreadful is out there, but neither we nor the characters have a clue what it is until one of the characters exclaims, “I saw it. It’s alive!” Rob, Lily, Marlena and Hud (T.J. Miller), now manning the camera, head for the Brooklyn Bridge, which the beast upends in spectacular fashion while showing a bit of its lizardly monstrousness in the process.
Rob then insists they head uptown to try to save Beth, presumed to be in the high-rise building from the opening scene; Odysseus had an easy time of it compared to what these unprepossessing non-warrior types go through to reach their destination.
Scripter Drew Goddard wisely drops some ancillary beasties into the mix, vicious crab/spider hybrids that make a repellent clicky-clacky noise and are anxious for human snacks. Another effective element is the occasional footage of lovely-dovey Ron and Beth shot back in April, when life looked so promising, the dire events of May 22 being inadvertently recorded over it.
The sights revealed thereafter become increasingly familiar ones to genre fans: decimated cityscapes (pic could even be viewed as a theoretical prequel to “I Am Legend,” prepping the city for the way it would look in that recent film), a heavy military presence, an overcrowded temporary hospital, zooming choppers and jets.
At long last, a lingering full-on shot of the monster is served up, and it’s not a friendly sight. All the same, a strong argument could be made for not showing the creature at all. The film’s initial hints at offering a new kind of horror eventually devolve into something essentially familiar, provoking idle thoughts that, in the vein of the ’50s sci-fier “Forbidden Planet,” it could have been more effective with an invisible but quite tangible threat.
Handheld style overseen by director Matt Reeves, whose first feature was “The Pallbearer” and who partnered with Abrams on “Felicity” for four years, produces mixed results; the frenzied, haphazard nature of the coverage accurately reflects the state of things, but also seems hackneyed from overuse. A major production benefit must have been that expenditures for visual effects (expertly handled by Double Negative and the Tippett Studio) could be minimized, as the camera could plausibly be pointed away from the action much of the time.
Picture proper only runs 73 minutes, while the end credits crawl up the screen in what seems like slow motion for 12 minutes to eke out a total running time of 85 minutes. Only source music is used in the film itself, but accompanying the credits is “Roar! (Cloverfield Overture),” which composer Michael Giacchino has cleverly fashioned to evoke the sort of bombastic, heavily dramatic score such a picture would have had in traditional times.
If “Cloverfield” proves massively successful, there’s nothing preventing this beast from invading as many other cities as the public wants to see destroyed.