Camera traces monster's path through urban field of screams
January 18, 2008 10:00 AM
Michael Stahl-David and Jessica Lucas in "Cloverfield."
By Barbara Vancheri Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The revolution will not be televised, but the monster's rampage through Manhattan will be documented by digital camcorder.
The movie labeled "Blair Witch Project" meets "Godzilla" -- by its makers and anyone who's tracked the buzz since a mysterious preview debuted in July -- arrives today, and "Cloverfield" is a monster movie for our time.
That is, a world of cell phones, the Internet and YouTube, with television the first responder in any crisis. "Cloverfield" puts us behind a camcorder, and we watch New York being attacked, as if it were happening to us.
It's a brilliant (if herky-jerky) way to freshen a story that has been told before, as the movie purports to be digital footage found in a camera in what was once Central Park.
After some idyllic scenes filmed on April 27, the action shifts to May 22 and a surprise party for a New Yorker named Rob (Michael Stahl-David) who is moving to Japan for work.
His brother, Jason (Mike Vogel), and the brother's girlfriend, Lily (Jessica Lucas), ask a pal named Hud (T.J. Miller) to play filmmaker and get partygoers to say goodbye to Rob on camera. But the drinking, flirting and gossiping grind to a halt after 20 minutes when the city appears to be under attack.
The first TV report makes mention of a possible earthquake that capsized an oil tanker near the Statue of Liberty, but when Lady Liberty's severed head slams into the middle of the street, it's clear the tremors, roars and destruction are coming from a creature and not the heaving of the ocean floor.
"Cloverfield" follows Rob, Jason, Lily, Hud, plus friends Marlena (Lizzy Caplan) and Beth (Odette Yustman) as they try to make their way to safety amid a city in panic. Hud, who provides comic relief with his reaction or wisecracks, almost never puts the camera down.
"People are gonna want to know how it all went down," he insists. And they see and experience how. What they don't get is the why.
Writer Drew Goddard says the movie purposely lacks the scientist in white coat explaining what's going on; that may frustrate more traditional (i.e. older) moviegoers. They also may be the ones who end up with headaches or nausea due to the shaky camera; a woman in my row made a beeline to the restroom, vomited and returned.
The press notes provide some insights not apparent in the movie; the creature is a skyscraper-size baby, "confused, disoriented and irritable. And he's been down there in the water for thousands and thousands of years," says producer J.J. Abrams, who credits "Godzilla" as his inspiration.
The monster is not the only predator around, however, with oversize parasites ready to bite and claw at the flesh, too.
"Cloverfield," directed by "Felicity" creator Matt Reeves, seems a little underpopulated. When the world started coming to an end in "I Am Legend," the streets of Manhattan were choked with cars. Here, the subway tunnels are oddly empty and columns of pedestrians appear thin.
Nevertheless, the movie keeps us off balance and on edge. We never know where the monster is going to turn up next or exactly what it's supposed to be, except that it has the worst elements of beasts past, present, mythical and computer-generated.
Even the Army is clueless, as one soldier says, "Whatever it is, it's winning." And so is this next generation of storytelling, which takes "The Blair Witch Project" and turns up the societal stakes and the terror.