The first 'reality blockbuster' is a winner. Cloverfield is a lean, brisk roller-coaster of a monster movie, buoyed by the lack of story gimmicks and absurd characterizations that weigh down most movies of this ilk, no offense to you personally Mr. Broderick. In the aftermath, it will dawn on you that it's actually quite traditional -- every character has an arc -- but it doesn't feel that way. Nor does it feel like 'found footage', but something in between. Watch the prologue carefully, as our narrator/cameraman, whose point of view we'll share, is trying to make a standard going-away party commemoration tape interesting by sniffing out some sex gossip and self-consciously creating his own drama with a girl who wishes he'd get lost. This guy has filmmaking instincts, and when circumstances change and he becomes a 'character' in a disaster movie, he goes with it. He's not just pointing a camera -- he's making Cloverfield: The Movie. Ten years ago, we would have said 'it's not realistic that this guy would keep the camera rolling,' but those days are long gone.
Again, there's no pretense of reality here -- the 20-something party people who we meet and whose lives are flipped by the arrival of the monster are all as pretty and as vapid as anyone on Laguna Beach and they never become less glamorous as the movie goes on -- no one is caught in need of a snot-rag, ala Blair Witch. Among the main characters are Rob (Michael Stahl-David), the guest of honor at the party who is leaving for a new job in Japan, Beth (Odette Yustman) his ex-girlfriend who he still has feelings for but would only admit it if, say, her life were in mortal danger or something, and Marlena (Lizzy Caplan) whose quiet, wide-eyed demeanor and gruff sarcasm make her a bad candidate for 'Survivor Girl.' As the advertising will tell you, some characters will live and some will die but you never know when and where and one death is so shocking and inexplicable I wish very much that I hadn't already seen it a hundred times in the movie's 'give everything away' advertising.
It has to be said that the monster -- it's never given a name -- is a bit disappointing when seen in full. Apparently having popped out of the sea -- someone suggests at one point that it arose out of an earthquake fault in the ocean floor -- it looks like a demonic bullfrog with elbows as opposed to something exotic enough to be otherworldly or vaguely humanoid like Godzilla or King Kong. In other words, it's lacking in personality. It's not T-shirt-worthy. There's also no getting around its CGI roots -- the more up close and personal the characters get with the beast, the more you can feel the believability and shock draining away. As innovative as the structure of Cloverfield is, at the end of the day the most innovative thing might have been to restrain even more when it comes to money shots, if the only thing that could be produced for this budget was a CGI beastie not unlike many that have gone before. That said, there's a silver lining in that this movie offers more than one monster.
The biggest scares come from a bunch of little scorpion-things that literally drop off the back or the undercarriage of the boss-monster as it shuffles along, busy with knocking over buildings and biting the heads off our precious national landmarks. These smaller things, when cornered or when pissed off, emit a wild, strange sound that has to be heard to be believed and they also contain a venom that, let's just say, can cause irritation for humans who receive it. (Just because the ads give away the store doesn't mean I have to) If anything, they seem like something that crawled out of that bug pit in Peter Jackson's King Kong, and that's a pretty good compliment. Take it from someone who is not usually a fan of little monsters, be they velociraptors or baby Godzillas or other -- these things are creepy. One of the film's best scenes comes when our heroes are attacked by a gaggle of them while trekking across the subway tracks from lower Manhattan to Columbus Circle -- a trip that takes about twenty minutes by foot, apparently!
All in all, Cloverfield is exactly what it should be -- clever enough, new enough, and exciting enough to make you save your doubts and quibbles until after the ride is over and you stumble out of the theater. (Although one quibble I was forced to confront mid-movie was why the filmmakers chose to quote directly from a well-known 9/11 video for one extended shot -- you'll know exactly which one I'm referring to when you see it. It's somewhat off-putting.) Director Matt Reeves -- I'm going to go out on a limb and assume that it's still safe to give credit to directors these days, instead of just the mega-name producers who back the project and lend it their starpower -- shows himself with this film to be very adroit at taking a high-concept (for the action-horror genre) idea and spinning it into an adventure-packed film with a bare minimum of fat on the bone. Whatever Reeves does next will be looked forward to and watched carefully by me.