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Cloverfield by Matt Reeves (dir), Drew Goddard (wr), J.J. Abrams (prod)
Review by Drew Bittner
Paramount  
Date: 21 January 2008

Links: Cloverfield Preview / Rogan Marshall's Review /

When a giant monster attacks Manhattan, a handful of friends chronicle their fight to survive with a simple camcorder. It's powerful filmmaking and marks a dynamic new spin on a genre that many might see as cliché.

Directed by Matt Reeves, written by Drew Goddard.
Starring:
    Lizzy Caplan / Marlena Diamond
    Jessica Lucas / Lily Ford
    T.J. Miller / Hud Platt
    Michael Stahl-David / Rob Hawkins
    Mike Vogel / Jason Hawkins
    Odette Yustman / Beth McIntyre

Rob Hawkins (Stahl-David) has earned a big promotion and will be leaving for Japan. Before he goes, his brother Jason (Vogel) and best friend Hud (Miller) get together with Jason's fiancée Lily (Lucas) to throw him a going-away party.

Just his luck, it's the day a gigantic monster decides to attack Manhattan.

This is the story of Cloverfield, a compelling but vertiginous hybrid of Godzilla and The Blair Witch Project. If that formulation sounds familiar, well, it's one that many reviewers have made, chiefly because it is perfectly apt.

As video of the party trundles along, intercut with footage of Rob spending a day at Coney Island with Beth (Yustman) after an intimate night together, Hud ends up handling the chores with the camcorder ... and becomes the inadvertent cameraman to apocalypse.

Rob, Jason, and Hud are outside discussing how Beth showed up (and quickly left) with another guy when a massive explosion can be heard in the distance. They (along with everyone else at the party) race up to the roof in time to see a huge detonation in the direction of New York Harbor. Shrapnel rains down like artillery shells, sending them downstairs and then into the street, where a projectile flung like a baseball caroms off buildings and slams to a stop nearly at their feet: the head of the Statue of Liberty.

They take temporary refuge in a bodega, then head outside to find Marlena (Caplan) dazed and wandering in the wreckage. Hud is smitten with Marlena and urges her to follow them, which she does.

Fleeing for their lives toward the Brooklyn Bridge, the remaining handful of partygoers are caught in the middle as the creature tears into their escape route. Hundreds, perhaps thousands die as the bridge is destroyed, including a major character. Terrified and grief-blinded, they pass up joining an Army evacuation caravan when Rob gets a voicemail from Beth; she's hurt and scared and needs his help.

And so he heads off to find Beth and get her to safety, along with a trio of his friends. Ducking the creature's rampage in the sewers, they find that the gigantic monster is not the only danger -- and emerge from a harrowing chase to find an Army outpost overrun by injured and dying New Yorkers.

They choose to forge ahead and find Beth, learning that there is a last-ditch evacuation point near Central Park. If they can make it there by 6 a.m., they should be able to get clear before the Army invokes "hammerdown" -- an ominous protocol whereby Manhattan itself may be sacrificed.

To say more would be to invoke massive spoilers, but the action never lets up and the characters by turns show courage, compassion, terror and humor in the face of a cataclysm none could have imagined.

This is street-level monster horror, unlike anything shown on the big screen. Monster films show the top levels of the response chain, from politicians to soldiers to scientists; this shows the innocent bystanders caught on those battlefields who struggle only to survive. Something like Cloverfield gets at the human heart of these epic films, much like great disaster movies of the past. The struggle to survive -- not to kill the beast but just to continue living -- is the essence of the story, even when that struggle turns into getting someone you love out of harm's way.

The movie is shot with the jerkiness, off-center focus and overall "home movie" quality you get from a camcorder. That reinforces the immediacy of the action, as the characters enter shattered buildings, run from and fight against horrific lesser threats, and eventually confront the monster in a terrifying direct fashion. That roller-coaster quality never lets up, and many filmgoers may find it too much to take; this is absolutely not an easy film to watch (for that reason among others) but it is compelling and a fresh new direction for a very old SF/horror genre.

Strongly recommended.

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